Landowners and ag producers submit an offer for the annual payment amount received to restore playas and plant a native grass buffer.
On January 11, the newly-established Migratory Bird, Butterfly, and Pollinator Habitat State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (Migratory Bird SAFE) practice was announced in Kansas and Nebraska, with up to 10,000 acres available for enrollment in each state. This is exciting news for a couple of reasons.
First, although they are not mentioned in the name of the practice, this program is entirely focused on conserving playas, a critical source of water for the birds and people in western Kansas and Nebraska. The name of the program gives you a hint at how important these temporary wetlands are to the region's wildlife — including birds, butterflies, and other pollinators — but playas also provide important benefits for the people who live in this region. Research has shown that properly functioning playas are a primary source of recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer — contributing up to 95 percent of inflow to the aquifer and improving the quality of that water.
Second, this practice isn't a 'one size fits all' program. It was designed after listening to landowners talk about their considerations and concerns about managing playas within their operations. Under the new Migratory Bird SAFE, the conservation payment is set by the producers, who determine the amount of money they need to conserve the playas on their land and submit a bid.
The Migratory Bird SAFE is designed to provide private landowners an innovative, market-based financial incentive for restoring playas and planting a native grass upland buffer strip. Using a reverse auction, landowners can submit an offer — up to a maximum amount of $300 per acre — for the amount they are willing to accept as an annual payment, for a period of 10-15 years, through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.
"In a reverse auction, annual payments are determined by landowners, with bids based on the values and factors that are important to each individual," said Rod Winkler, director of conservation programs for Kansas Farm Service Agency, during the Kansas announcement. "Submitted bids are based upon landowner values and will be evaluated in a competitive process. We will be looking for the lowest, most reasonable bid amounts."
This new SAFE is a grassroots, cooperative conservation effort that was jointly proposed by Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) and Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) after listening to what producers had to say about playas. In 2013, the Joint Ventures conducted 13 landowner focus groups throughout a six-state region, which led to recommendations for designing conservation programs that appeal to landowners, including higher compensation for enrolling their land in a conservation program.
"We know that every decision by every landowner is a personal one, driven by unique experiences and circumstances. Understanding those decisions can only be appreciated through personal conversations like the ones that happened in the focus groups," says PLJV Coordinator Mike Carter. "But the real success comes when we can take that information and create a program, like the new Migratory Bird SAFE, that is a direct response to what we heard from those farmers and ranchers."