Pennsylvania farmers will be eligible for $210 million in federal and state assistance over the next 15 years to preserve farmland, curb runoff and improve wildlife habitat in the Chesapeake watershed under a new program.

The state-federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is also expected to reduce nutrient pollution in the Bay watershed by about 1.6 million pounds per year.

“Pennsylvania is committed to doing its share to prevent pollution, and this agreement will help ensure that up to 100,000 acres of prime Pennsylvania farmland will be preserved at the same time,” said Gov. Tom Ridge, who announced the agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Jan. 26.

The program is patterned after a similar federal-state initiative that began in Maryland in 1997. Virginia and the USDA are expected to launch such a program within the next few months. Altogether, farmers in the the Bay states will be eligible for more than half a billion dollars in new incentives to participate in conservation programs over the next 10–15 years.

Before, farmers had been able to take certain highly erodible or environmentally sensitive areas out of production in exchange for payments from the government. But the CREP program expands on that by offering greater incentives to farmers who protect especially important areas such as stream buffers in targeted watersheds of state and national significance, including the Chesapeake.

Under the voluntary program, the USDA provides 50 percent of the funds necessary to install conservation measures, such as filter strips, permanent vegetative cover or riparian buffers. The USDA requires states to contribute at least 20 percent of the program costs.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Samuel E. Hayes Jr. said that, under the terms of the state’s CREP agreement, the USDA will pay farmers an estimated $129 million to “retire” 100,000 acres of environmentally sensitive farmland for 10 or 15 years, and for the costs of conservation practices on the retired farmland.

Farmers in 20 counties of the lower Susquehanna drainage will be eligible to participate in the program.

Pennsylvania also will invest nearly $81 million to pay for conservation practices on the retired farmland that will help protect streams and restore wildlife habitat.

“Over the years, vital habitat for pheasants, rabbits and other wildlife had been lost,” said Vern Ross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “CREP will enable the Commission to reverse that process and begin to reclaim this vitally important part of Pennsylvania’s hunting heritage.”

Meanwhile, Virginia has finalized the details of a CREP agreement with the USDA which should be announced soon. “Virginia has completed its review of the CREP agreement,” said David G. Brickley, director of, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. “Gov. Gilmore is waiting to sign it as soon as we get it.”

The $91 million Virginia program is expected to protect and enhance 25,000 acres of farmland in the Bay watershed, and another 10,000 acres elsewhere in the state. In addition, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited are planning to contribute $1.5 million to the Virginia program for wetland restoration efforts, Waugh said.

The nation’s first CREP agreement was announced between Maryland and the USDA in 1997. That agreement, worth $225 million over a 10–15 year period, is aimed at enticing farmers to set aside and restore up to 100,000 acres of sensitive land in the state.