HONOLULU — The state on Monday began promoting a new program that will pay ranchers and farmers to plant native species and restore wetlands on land they’re not using.
The $67 million program is designed to restore wildlife habitats for endangered and threatened species, reduce soil erosion, and prevent fertilizer and other chemicals from getting into streams.
The reduced runoff is expected to help Hawaii’s coral reefs grow.
The federal government is funding 80 percent of the cost. The state is paying for 20 percent of the total, or $13.4 million, with revenue from the conveyance tax on real estate sales. The program is already fully funded, and is not a target of budget cuts.
Duane Okamoto, the state Department of Agriculture’s deputy director, said the program would provide welcome financial help during the recession.
“In these difficult economic times, it really will give a boost to our agriculture industry,” Okamoto told reporters during a joint news conference with other state and federal agen-cies.
The state and federal governments aim to have 15,000 acres signed up for conservation for 15 years. They won’t target land that’s actively being used to grow crops or raise livestock.
Big Island and Maui farmers and ranchers may start enrolling from April 1. Those on La-nai and Molokai may start next year, followed by Oahu and Kauai in 2011. The state may accelerate the schedule if there’s enough demand. Enrollment will be accepted during the next five years.
The financial incentives may “encourage a rancher to do something they’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Jim Greenwell, president of Palani Ranch in the Big Island’s Kona district.
As a member and former president of the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council, Greenwell spent six or seven years working to bring the program to Hawaii.
He said many ranchers have land that could benefit from the program and would be inter-ested in joining.
“Most ranchers believe in good conservation,” Greenwell said. “Most ranchers would like to see more forestation brought back in the appropriate areas.”
His own ranch, Palani, will likely be disqualified, however, he said, because in most cases, only farms and ranches with an adjusted gross income of less than $1 million will be eligible.
The program will pay participants an annual land rental fee and yearly maintenance pay-ments.
It will cover part of the cost of planting native plants, establishing wetlands, installing fences and other steps to implement conservation plans.
There’s a possibility the program may be expanded to more than 15,000 acres, if enough farms and ranches sign up.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will help landowners and leaseholders devise plans for their land.
One million acres in 33 states are already managed under the Conservation Reserve En-hancement Program, or CREP.
Then-Vice president Al Gore signed the first program agreement in 1997, said the pro-gram’s manager, Lana Nesbit.
Unique topography and other special demands delayed the program’s introduction to Ha-waii.
For example, in most other states, the program pays farmers or ranchers to protect buffer zones only next to constantly running streams. But on the Big Island, many streams only have intermittently flowing water because the young volcanic soil is extremely porous.
Large areas of the Big Island and other islands would have been ineligible for the program if the federal government hadn’t adjusted the program for Hawaii, said Paul Conry, adminis-trator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
On the Net:
U.S. Farm Service Agency in Hawaii: www.fsa.usda.gov/hi