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Grasslands Reserve Program


The sign-up for the Grasslands Reserve Program has now begun.

When the Grassland Reserve Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, of the sixteen original co-sponsors, four of them were Congressmen from Mississippi. The Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) would provide the technical expertise as well as the financial means to those landowners and groups who have an interest in restoring the native prairies
of the state. Grasslands are important both for the forage they provide for farming operations and for the wildlife habitat they provide.

The program authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase either permanent or 30 year easements from landowners in exchange for a cash payment. The program also authorizes the restoration of native grasslands which is particularly important in the Black Prairie of Northeast Mississippi (1,349,120 acres) and the Jackson Prairie in East Central Mississippi (611,200 acres). These grasslands once supported vast populations of bobwhite quail, wild turkey and a variety of songbird species.

Early explorers to the prairies of the state described them as "expansive illuminated grassy plains" and "rolling prairie with scattered pine and crabapple thickets". W. Roberts, writing in the Emigrant's Guide in 1818, described the prairie he saw as "wide spreading plains, of a level, or gently waving land, with skirts of rich interval wood land; and exhibiting, in the month of May, rich cast, and has the appearance of great fertility. Early settlement and intensive cultivation have severely degraded the soils of these prairies. Overgrazing and intensive agriculture have resulted in the loss of valuable topsoil as well as serious erosion. Excessive grazing and the exclusion of fire have allowed the expansion and Eastern Red Cedar and other noxious species. Today, less that one percent of the Blackland Prairie still remains. Most of the prairie is in degraded forest or agricultural production. However, some prairie remnants can be found in cemeteries, 16th section lands and on the Tombigbee and Bienville National Forests.

The program permits unrestricted grazing on the easement property. Haying is permitted after the nesting season for birds in the local area. Prohibitions are intended to prevent cultivation of the soil for row crops, and otherwise to break the soil for production of agricultural commodities.

The Grassland Reserve Act authorizes qualified conservation and land trust organizations (i.e., Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Mississippi Land Trust, etc.) and state agencies to hold and enforce easements. The Department of Agriculture's obligations under the program are limited to executing easement documents, restoring grasslands when desired and to hold easements if so desired by participating landowners. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is required to conduct periodic inspections of the easement properties. Landowners who violate easement terms may be required to repay the funds they receive under the program, plus interest.


The Act authorizes the enrollment of 1 million acres. This is the largest prairie restoration program in the nation's history.

For more information, go to www.wildlifemiss.org.


This article was written by James L. Cummins, Executive Director of the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Stoneville, Mississippi. Known as "Wildlife Mississippi," the Foundation is a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.

 

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