By Timothy B. Wheeler,

Steve Derrenbacher’s plans to install more trees along Israel Creek, which runs through his pasture were held up when a USDA program to help farmers extend their buffers stopped accepting new applicants. (Timothy B. Wheeler)

Ending an eight-month hiatus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has resumed a federal conservation program that’s been a workhorse in the slog to plant forested stream buffers across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The USDA announced in mid-May that starting June 3, it would reopen signups for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), under which farmers can get generous subsidies to take cropland or marginal pastureland out of production and plant it with native grasses, trees or other vegetation.

The program has been a key tool for states in their lagging efforts to establish forested buffers along the Bay watershed’s streams. It gives farmers an annual payment under a 10– or 15-year contract for land where they agree to plant trees along streams. Growers also get a signing incentive payment, and much of the design and installation costs for the buffer are covered.

But CREP, part of a larger USDA Conservation Reserve Program, has suffered repeated interruptions over the years, which advocates say makes it hard to recruit participants.

“Landowners get discouraged,” said Anne Hairston-Strang, associate director of the Maryland Forest Service, in early April, when it was unclear how long the latest holdup would last. “It makes the program seem less reliable, less trustworthy.”

The latest interruption came at a crucial time, advocates said. The federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program has long had a goal of planting 900 miles of riparian buffers annually, but in 2017 the Bay states only planted 56 miles’ worth.

The program was suspended at the end of September when the 2014 Farm Bill expired, leaving some farmers frustrated because their enrollments had not been completed. Congress passed new authorizing legislation nearly three months later, and President Trump signed it into law Dec. 20.

But the hold on enrollments has remained in effect through the first five months of this year. A USDA spokeswoman said in April that the Farm Service Agency was evaluating how CREP and other conservation programs might be affected by the 2018 Farm Bill.

The new law actually increases the nationwide acreage cap for the parent Conservation Reserve Program from 24,000 to 27,000 acres, and it authorizes increased CREP payments for the maintenance of stream buffers.

The Bay watershed states face challenges not only in expanding stream buffers, but in ensuring that those planted in years past remain. CREP contracts covering 3,500 acres of forest buffers in the six-state watershed are slated to expire on Sept. 30, according to USDA figures. Nearly 2,000 of those acres are in Pennsylvania alone, with 600 in New York, 500 in Virginia, more than 200 in West Virginia and 175 in Maryland. Delaware has none.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...