As a landowner or a land manager, you are probably familiar with some of the various government programs that offer cost-share incentives for soil, habitat and wildlife conservation practices that you implement. Well, beginning in January there will be a brand new program to take advantage of in Georgia, and it stands to be the easiest program to qualify for and offers the widest range of covered practices of any currently available program-and it could reimburse you for up to 75 percent of your costs.
It’s called WHIP, which stands for Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and it was created by the 1996 Farm Bill. The only eligibility requirement that you must meet to apply for cost-share funding under WHIP is that you must own or control the land where the conservation practices will be implemented. This means that those who lease a tract of land are eligible as long as they can show permission from the landowner for the proposed work.
"Not having to actually own the land brings in a lot of groups that otherwise would not be able to take part in a program like this," said Mark Whitney, a wildlife biologist with DNR’s Private Lands Initiative. "A landowner could turn control of a particular tract over to say a Boy Scout group to use for a group wildlife project. Sportsman’s groups, garden clubs, the members of a hunting lease, anyone that can show they have control of the land and permission from the landowner can apply for assistance."
WHIP will be particularly attractive to habitat managers because the habitat types and practices that WHIP wants to encourage include many of the most common, most easily implemented practices.
Applications received by WHIP will be run through a scoring system that will rank the proposals based on how well each project meets the various goals of the program. There are six specific categories of wildlife habitat that the WHIP technical committee has given priority, and a proposed project should involve one or more of these communities of special concern. They include:
1. Early Successional Habitat: this is the zone between land-use areas that includes vegetation in the grass/shrub stage up to small trees. These zones and their edge species are very important to species like quail.
"Early successional habitat is something that can be developed just about anywhere," said Mark, "but it’s a specific habitat type that we are really missing across the state."
2. Riparian Areas: a technical term for bottomland hardwoods, another habitat type that is being lost faster than it is being created. A project like planting hardwood seedlings in former bottomland hardwoods that were clearcut could earn WHIP assistance.
3. Longleaf Pine Communities: this is the shrinking habitat that is most often associated with quail, but it also includes a host of threatened plant and animal species. Instead of planting slash or loblolly pines in that Coastal Plain cutover, plant longleaf and get WHIP assistance, though you may be required to comply with tree-density specifications that favor habitat creation over timber production.
4. Endangered and Threatened Species Habitats: obviously any habitat type that is commonly related to plant and animal species of concern, such as the sandhill habitat of the gopher tortoise. A project that involved a longleaf pine tree planting, for example, would gain extra points in the WHIP ranking because it combines a habitat type of concern with endangered species connections.
5. Isolated Wetlands: this includes things like limesinks, temporary or wet-weather ponds, Carolina bays, and other small but crucial wetlands.
6. Habitats That Support Desirable Wildlife: the WHIP criteria specifically mention Eastern wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, American woodcock, and Northern bobwhite quail as species that are considered "desirable" wildlife.
Because these categories are so broad, the land you control stands a good chance of containing one of these six priority habitat types, meaning that most management projects you undertake could probably be linked to the WHIP goals. There is also a chance that one habitat type might combine several of the priority characteristics, making your project proposal more attractive and likely to be accepted.
As for the actual projects that you can implement, there is a list of practice priorities that includes several things you probably already do on your land. Here is just a sample:
A. Firebreaks and Prescribed Burning: even the cost of having firebreaks plowed on your property can be cost-shared.
"Fire helps you maintain early successional habitat," said Mark, "so you’re really targeting the primary wildlife priority that we are concerned about at this point. The use of fire as a wildlife management tool is just going by the wayside, and we want to encourage it."
B. Tree/Shrub Planting: this kind of work could be related to a number of priority habitats, whether reestablishing hardwoods or creating a border zone that will slow soil erosion from cultivated fields.
C. Wetland Creation and Restoration: this could be filling in a man-made ditch that prevents a wet-weather pond from holding water. Or put in a small pond along a waterfowl flyway, and you might get WHIP funds.
D. Hedgerow Plantings: "A hedgerow is specifically designed to create edge," said Mark. "They are built across large fields or pastures in order to create that structural difference that those edge-dependent species really need to live. In terms of species, it could be anything from six rows of pine trees across a field to plums or lespedeza."
E. Fencing: a good example of how fencing could qualify is any pasture that borders a creek or river drainage. If cattle are allowed to use the bottomland they can be highly destructive to plants and stream edges. Putting up a fence along the hardwood bottom to exclude the cattle would be a good WHIP project.
F. Undesirable Plant Species: there are a lot of specific plants that need to be controlled. Converting a monocultural stand of fescue into a native warm season grass or getting rid of chinaberry trees that choke many south Georgia creek drains could qualify under WHIP.
When you apply to the WHIP program, your project will be considered under a number of different point-earning criteria. Other than meeting the habitat and practice priority needs, you can also earn extra points, giving you a greater chance of being accepted, if your planned project includes these bonuses. 1) It is adjacent to state or federal properties that are already protected. 2) The anticipated cost of the project will not compare to something like constructing an aircraft carrier. 3) Chances of success under your proposal are deemed good. 4) Your land is already under an existing resource management plan, like CRP. (See the chart on page 122.)
Mark offered another tip that could help you make a more attractive proposal: "Offer less of a cost-share. In other words, if you’re willing to accept 50 percent of the cost, then that will give you a few extra points over someone who is offering the same project but wants 75 percent."
Mark said he anticipated that the first period for applying would end around March 1 of 1998 or whenever a certain number of applications have been received. WHIP will then rank the applications. Those that are not accepted will roll over into the next application period and be considered again.
To apply, you will need to contact your county’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When you go in to pick up your application, you will be able to sit down and talk to someone about the specifics of your project and how to make your proposal. The Farm Services Agency, the UGA Cooperative Extension Service, the Georgia Forestry Commission and DNR are also assisting with WHIP, so you may get information from those local offices as well. Use the phone book to locate the local NRCS office, or you can call DNR Game Management at (770) 918-6416 if you have questions.
Your NRCS office will also be able to give you more details about other programs that can offer you financial or educational assistance, like those listed on page 122.