State officials in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund an ambitious five-year, $500 million program to protect the farmland and natural resources of the Delmarva Peninsula while reducing pollution to the Chesapeake.

The Delmarva Conservation Corridor initiative would provide unprecedented funding to farmers who voluntarily restore corridors of forests and wetlands, help to prevent sprawl, manage manure and fertilizer with greater care, and undertake new business ventures to boost farm profitability.

The action plan that accompanies the request lays out a detailed strategy aimed at focusing additional funding on a specific area—the Delmarva Peninsula—with the intention of developing a diversified, sustained agricultural program in the future while reducing pollution and the rate of farmland loss.

More than 200,000 acres of Delmarva farmland were lost between 1982 and 1997, and about 7,000 acres continue to be lost each year, according to USDA estimates. Developers have paid as much as $20,000 an acre for Delmarva farmland. The new plan seeks to reverse that trend by purchasing development rights from farmers.

In addition, the plan would provide seed money for alternative crops, technologies and farm products that could help farmers diversify and provide them with more income. For example, many farmers have shown interest in growing crops that could be used to produce energy, and the proposal would provide start-up funding for a regional ethanol plant.

The initiative would also provide money for programs that improve habitat for wildlife, said state and federal officials.

For example, USDA funds would be used to acquire marginal lands that could be restored and linked together to create “corridors” for migrating birds, the rare Delmarva Fox squirrel and other species.

Maryland is seeking $15 million to purchase and restore large blocks of contiguous protected land, and $120 million to acquire development rights from farmers.

Other funds would provide incentives for better manure and fertilizer management and dozens of other land management practices that improve water quality, such as seeking funds to make chicken litter a more effective fertilizer, or planting buffers of trees around chicken houses.

Runoff from poultry operations has contributed to low levels of dissolved oxygen in the Bay and its tributaries by fueling the production of algae. The initiative would provide significant new funding to poultry farmers who offer to reduce the amount of pollution being washed off their farms.

Overall, state officials in Maryland and Delaware and county officials in Virginia’s Accomack and Northampton counties are seeking about $300 million in federal funds over five years, and have pledged to provide about $200 million in state and private funds.

The new program, if implemented, would be the most ambitious regional initiative ever undertaken by the USDA. While it has developed a regional initiative to address water conflicts in the Klamath River basin in Oregon and California, that plan is far less ambitious and far less costly.

All three states have worked with the USDA in the past to link funds from a single USDA program, the Conservation Reserve Program, with state easement funds. But, the Delmarva Conservation Corridor initiative would go further by tapping funds from a wider variety of USDA programs and by focusing on the bottom line as well as biodiversity.

Two provisions of the 2002 Farm Bill permit the USDA to reserve funds from federal easement and incentives programs, including a section developed by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) specifically for the Delmarva Peninsula.

Gilchrest and three other members of Congress waged a bitter battle with the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee to include more funding for conservation nationally and somehow, Gilchrest still managed to slip the Delmarva provision into the final bill.

Rob Etgen, executive director of the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, said Gilchrest’s “persistence” has been the primary reason the corridor initiative received the attention of congressional and state leaders. “Congressman Gilchrest has been dedicated to this concept for several years,” he said.

Delaware, Maryland and Virginia officials do not have a tradition of working together to address Delmarva’s environmental challenges, Etgen said, although officials have worked together to promote economic development on the peninsula. Gilchrest managed to bring the right people together to craft the plan, he said.

“This has been a collaborative effort by dedicated officials in three states who have come together to try to address some of the challenges that face us,” Gilchrest said. “They’ve come up with an innovative, multifaceted approach that is comprehensive and bold.”

Gilchrest hopes that the USDA, which must respond to the proposal by the end of September, will use its discretion to provide funds in October.

To view the corridor initiative, visit www.gilchrest.house.gov