Putting tax dollars to work

Taxes! For many people, paying tax bills can seem like a simultaneously necessary but unwelcome burden. The money often appears to go to the government with little visible return. For landowners, though, resources available through those tax dollars can help make valuable improvements to your property — enhancements that benefit wildlife habitat, and increase hunting, fishing and recreational opportunities.

The key is identifying state and federal funds that landowners can access through direct payments, grants, workshops and on-site technical assistance for specific improvements.

The Conservation Reserve Program is one of the United States’ largest private land conservation programs and one of the most successful wildlife and habitat restoration initiatives of the last 35 years.

The CRP provides direct annual payments to landowners as an incentive to take highly erodible farm ground and marginal pasture out of crop production. If your land has been used for farming practices and you meet the criteria, it may be possible to qualify for the CRP program.

Generally, the ground would need to have been previously used for some type of farming operation during a specific time frame. A meeting with your local USDA office can help determine your eligibility, even identifying, perhaps, exceptions that let you apply for funds if your property doesn’t meet all criteria.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service manages several programs designed to help landowners make habitat improvements.

For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides funding for projects such as planting a portion of your property in native grasses and flowers to provide nectar for pollinators and cover for different wildlife species. Landowners fill out an application that details the project. If the applicant is successful, the program provides funding for seed and money for the project’s labor costs.

One little-known resource through the USDA is the Emergency Forest Restoration Program. If you are a non-commercial forest landowner who suffered damages due to a natural disaster, funds are available through EFRP to help with both cleanup and replanting trees to replace those lost during the storm. This program was designed to help restore habitat and forest ecosystems as quickly as possible.

State agencies such as departments of natural resources, local or county-based conservation offices, or game and fish departments often employ experts who can directly assist landowners with conservation projects. Most states have some sort of private land division with state-employed specialists who visit your property and assist with pond and stream management, along with native plant restoration and erosion mitigation. Local state foresters can help put together a plan to improve timber stands to best meet your goals.

Many states have cost-share programs, often managed through the DNR or similar agency to help provide matching funds for land improvement projects.

If you currently use your property for farming operations or are considering starting some sort of agricultural business to help provide income, the Farm Services Administration aids through outreach coordinators. These coordinators help beginning farmers, as well as women and minorities, put together business plans and learn about available funding.

Finally, if you have extra land that you may be willing to share, many states pay landowners to open some of their land to public access. Landowners can often designate how and when the land can be used (hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching, etc.). In addition to base payments, bonus payments are often available to help reimburse the costs of any improvements.

Research options. Build relationships with local, state and federal agency representatives. You just might be able to get some of those tax dollars back into your pocket and benefit wild turkeys and other wildlife simultaneously.

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