Minnesota land values rose an average of 10 percent each year since 1998 and in the last two years land prices went up even faster. Minnesota wants to restore and protect two million acres of waterfowl habitat to help increase waterfowl populations.
But the people who administer state and federal conservation programs say it's getting more difficult to compete with rising land prices.
Most conservation programs pay landowners for agreeing to not develop or farm the land.
It(money)is a deciding factor because there's no way of making any money on the land after you sell the ag rights. You cannot graze it or farm it and it can't be built on.Ron Gandrud
Wetland Restoration Specialist John Voz administers the USDA Wetland Reserve Program, or WRP. "What's happening is that land prices are going up so rapidly that we're having a hard time making a good enough offer for landowners to enter into programs such as WRP," says Voz.
Like many conservation programs, the Wetland Reserve Program pays landowners who agree to follow rules designed to protect habitat.
Last year Minnesota led the nation in Wetland Reserve Program signups, according to Voz. This year he says the federal government reduced the payment landowners get, and interest in the program quickly declined.
Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources Conservation Easement Manager Kevin Lines says government programs that pay farmers to keep land out of production can't match what the farmers could get if they sell the land.
"In many instances the payment structure for conservation programs is fixed and we don't have the opportunity to make those annual changes we're seeing in land values so we're not being as competitive as we could be," says Lines.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is also affected by rising land prices. The DNR is generally not involved in easement programs, but does buy land for habitat preservation. A DNR official says in 10 years the average price the agency pays for land has quadrupled, from $500 an acre $2,000 an acre. It's not just farmland that costs more. In many counties the price for hunting land is rising even faster. So landowners may be tempted to sell a wetland to wealthy hunters rather than putting the land in a conservation program.
Ron Gandrud has about 160 acres of land in Becker county in the Wetland Reserve Program. Gandrud enrolled the land before payments were reduced this year. He says he won't sign up for a conservation program unless the payments are competitive.
"It is a deciding factor because there's no way of making any money on the land after you sell the ag rights. You cannot graze it or farm it and it can't be built on," says Gandrud.
Kevin Lines says the next few years will be critical for habitat preservation in Minnesota.
The state wants to put an additional two million acres into conservation programs to enhance waterfowl habitat.
But starting next year, the federal Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, will end for nearly two million acres of Minnesota farm land.
Kevin Lines says if land prices stay high, much of that land could return to farming, or become private hunting land.