A new program will use more than $200 million to entice Maryland farmers to adopt conservation practices, such as streamside buffers and wetland restoration, that will help protect the Chesapeake Bay. The first-of-its-kind partnership between the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay farmers to set aside up to 100,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land. According to state figures, that's enough to place a buffer between every acre of farmland and every permanent stream - as well as many seasonal streams - that feeds the Bay.

"This agreement means cleaner water, healthier fish and a stronger environment for every family in Maryland," said Vice President Al Gore. "By protecting the lands adjacent to the tributaries of the Bay and by restoring wetlands, we can significantly reduce the amount of nutrients, sediment and pesticides that reach the waters of the Bay." The Oct. 20 signing ceremony was also attended by Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, Senators Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, Representatives Wayne Gilchrest and Ben Cardin and other state and federal officials, as well as many farmers.

The agreement expands upon the USDA's existing Conservation Reserve Program - which makes annual "rent" payments to farmers who voluntarily take sensitive lands out of production - by offering bonuses to Maryland farmers who participate in the program, especially those who plant forest buffers. The Conservation Reserve Program was revised earlier this year to promote conservation efforts in "national priority areas" which include the watersheds of the Chesapeake, the Great Lakes, Long Island Sound and the prairie pothole region of the Great Plains.

States within the priority areas were eligible to develop "enhanced" programs in partnership with the USDA and to share the costs of additional incentive programs aimed at addressing regional conservation priorities.

The Maryland initiative is the first en-hanced program to be signed. "This is the most significant natural resource enhancement opportunity for Maryland in the last half century," Glendening said. The program, he said, would not only help protect the Bay, but would also preserve farm land from urban sprawl.

Traditionally, CRP participation by Maryland farmers has been low, in part because rental rates paid were not competitive with local land values. Maryland presently has less than 20,000 acres of its 2.2 million acres of farmland in the CRP.

Under the enhanced program, participating farmers will receive an additional 50 percent to 70 percent bonus added to the normal rental rate.

In addition, the USDA and Maryland will pay farmers 87.5 percent of the cost of planting streamside forests or grasses, fencing cattle out of streams or restoring wetlands on CRP land.

Also under the enhanced program, most rental contracts will cover 15-year periods, instead of the typical 10 years for most CRP contracts. Farmers who volunteer their land will be paid annual rental fees over that period.

In addition, Maryland intends to pay the added cost of placing 25,000 acres of the land under permanent conservation easements which would prevent future development.

The federal government will pay for most of the program, with Maryland picking up 25 percent to 30 percent of the costs, using funds from its farmland assistance programs, its rural legacy program, and the state's Program Open Space.

Over the 15-year life of the program, the total state and federal investment could reach $225 million to $250 million. Also, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it will add $5 million over five years to the program. Only land in high-priority conservation areas will be accepted into the program. If farmers fully participate, the program would result in up to 70,000 additional acres of streamside buffers, 20,000 acres of highly erodible land being taken out of production, and 10,000 acres of wetland being restored.

The streamside buffer program could greatly accelerate the state - and the Bay Program's - goals for restoring riparian forest buffers along streams if farmers opt to plant those areas with trees. The program is large enough to place buffers along 5,000 miles of streams by 2002. If those buffers are planted with trees, it would far exceed the state's objective of planting 600 miles of stream buffers by 2,010, or the Bay Program's watershedwide goal of planting 2,010 miles of forest stream buffers by 2010.

While any vegetated buffer can help reduce the amount of runoff from croplands to streams, forest buffers are effective both at keeping nutrients out of streams, and improving habitat within the waterway. Not only will Bay water quality benefit, but fact sheets describing the program say it will improve habitat for spawning fish such as shad, as well as turkeys, ducks and migratory songbirds.

While the agreement with Maryland is the first in the nation, the USDA is also negotiating with Minnesota and Illinois to enact similar programs.

The announcement was made on Loring Hawes' farm in Queen Anne's County. Hawes, who plants corn, soybeans and grains, already has a buffer area of trees and grass between his fields and the Corsica River. Gore praised him as an environmentally sensitive farmer.