Program turns idle farmland into wildlife habitat

March 31, 2001

Program turns idle farmland into wildlife habitat

By RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania was a pheasant hunter's paradise in the 1970s. More than 1 million wild birds were shot across the Keystone State every year.

"Pheasant was king," said Brian Brake of Mercersburg.

Brake is habitat chairman of the 150-member Cumberland Valley chapter of Pheasants Forever, a sportsmen's lobbying and conservation group whose goal is improving pheasant hunting by improving habitat.

Now, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program will do the same thing but in a much bigger way. The program will pay $220 million in federal and state funds to landowners in 20 Pennsylvania counties, including Franklin and Fulton, who set aside marginal farmland for wildlife habitat and stream bed protection.

The program will be explained Tuesday at 7 p.m. at a free banquet for landowners at the Mercersburg Sportsmen Association's clubhouse on Dickey's Road in Mercersburg. Call 1-717-328-5247 for information.


"There used to be 150 to 200 wild pheasants per square mile in Franklin County," Brake said.

Only a few stocked birds are left, he said.

Scott Klinger, farmland wildlife biologists for the Game Commission, said 200,000 pen-raised pheasants are stocked in the state every year. Few survive the winter, he said.

Brake blames the loss of pheasants on Earl Butz, U.S. agriculture secretary in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Prior to the early 1970s, the federal soil bank program kept millions of acres of American farmland out of production. Much of the idled land became wildlife habitat.

The program was replaced with a new farm bill under Butz that was designed to put all available acres of farmland into production. "America was going to feed the world," Klinger said.

U.S. farmers began to sell wheat and corn to Russia and China.

Marginal land in conservation cover was put into production, Klinger said.

"They bulldozed hedgerows and filled in wetlands to farm every square foot," he said. "The pheasant population in Pennsylvania was gone in two years."

CREP, the conservation program, started in June 2000. The goal is to sign up 100,000 acres in the 20 counties including highly erodable cropland, within 180 feet of a stream, and marginal pasture land.

CREP pays each enrollee $75 to $150 per acre a year for up to 15 years as long as the habitat is maintained.

Sharon Scarborough, a wildlife habitat specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Services, is recruiting landowners in Franklin and Cumberland counties.

So far, 20 landowners have enrolled, 54 have applications in and 47 have inquired about the program, she said. Since Jan. 15, 760 acres have been set aside in Franklin County and 1,200 acres are enrolled in Fulton County.

Enrollment is open through September 2002 or until the 100,000-acre goal is reached, Scarborough said.

Tom Mossellem, a beef farmer on Furnace Road in Little Cove, Pa., was the first Franklin County landowner to enroll.

Mossellem set aside 3.4 of his 150 acres. The CREP acres line a mountain stream that cuts through his land. It runs into Licking Creek and eventually into the Potomac River about 6 miles away.

Four cattle crossings have been installed in the stream, and this fall 100 native trees and shrubs will be planted in the set-aside acres to create wildlife habitat. It will also improve the quality of the water in the stream, Mossellem said.

"I'm doing this because I like to see wildlife and because I care about the environment," Mossellem said.

"When I came here, like many farmers, I bulldozed down all of the old fence rows," he said. "I thought I was cleaning up my farm. I didn't know any better.

"Removing the old fence lines destroyed all the wildlife habitat they had created," Mossellem said.

"I recommend this program. There isn't a down side to it. It's all positive."

The Herald-Mail Articles