Farmers in Maryland and Pennsylvania this year will, for the first time, be allowed to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wetland Reserve Program, the largest national effort aimed at wetland restoration.

The WRP is a voluntary program offering landowners a chance to receive payments if they sign long-term easements to take agricultural lands out of production and restore them to wetlands.

The program is administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service which was created last fall in a reorganization of the department. Previously, the WRP was run by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.

The program was created in the 1990 Farm Bill and began operating as a pilot program in 1992. It has gradually expanded, and this year will be available in all 50 states.

About $53 million is available for the purchase of easements this year, and the Clinton administration has requested $210 million for next year. The department aims to enroll 330,000 acres in the program through 1995, and nearly 1 million acres by the turn of the century.

Last year, 20 states were in the program, including Virginia. Of 110 Virginia farmers who expressed interest in participating, about a dozen are in the process of enrolling in the program. NRCS officials expect signups to increase as farmers learn more about the program and signup procedures become more streamlined.

Rules for participating in the program this year were still being finalized when the Bay Journal went to press. NRCS officials, though, expected final rules to be complete in early May and that the signup for this year's program would begin in late spring or early summer. Eligibility requirements for participating in the program are expected to be broader in the new rules.

The program has potential to play a major role in helping the Bay Program, and the nation, meet their no-net-loss wetland goals. Many wetland regulatory officials and policy makers believe that neither the nation, nor the Bay watershed, can hold the line on wetland losses without such a large-scale restoration initiative because many small wetlands are routinely lost through normal permit-writing activities.

While exact rules to guide this year's program are still being finalized, the WRP is generally open to wetlands that were converted to agricultural production prior to December 23, 1985. (The "Swampbuster" portion of the 1985 Farm Bill, which became effective on that date, prohibited wetlands from being converted to agricultural production if the land was enrolled in any federal agriculture program.)

The program is likely to allow for the government to purchase either 30-year or permanent easements of those wetlands. Priority is given to permanent easements. Participants in the program will receive payment for the easements based on the agricultural value of the property.

Lands entered into the program are taken out of production and restored to wetlands by the property owner. In the past, the USDA has offered a 75 percent cost-share toward restoration of the wetlands; other federal, state and private conservation organizations may provide additional assistance.

Farmers retain control of the property, including the right to limit public access, and under certain circumstances may continue to use it for such activities as hunting, fishing and limited timber harvest if they do not diminish wetland functions and values. Farmers remain liable for property taxes on the land.

People interested in the program should watch for additional information as it becomes available and may wish to contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office.