Fishers and Farmers: Partnering to Make a Difference
Fisherman appreciate the habitat nature provides, while farmers, who might also enjoy fishing, most appreciate the land for providing their livelihood. Now “fishers and farmers” are combining efforts to make a difference in the fish habitat of the Upper Mississippi River Basin.
The Fishers and Farmers Partnership (FFP), which includes large areas of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri, was accepted in 2010 as one of 17 working partnerships of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan (NFHAP). Heidi Keuler, fish biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Wisconsin, was recently appointed coordinator of the Partnership.
The NFHAP has been developed as “the most comprehensive effort ever attempted to treat and avert the causes of fish habitat decline” because more than 30 percent of U.S. fish populations are in decline and half of U.S. waters are impaired.
The FFP represents both conservation and agricultural interests and includes state and federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations. The Partnership’s goal is to use non-regulatory means to protect, restore and enhance the 30,700 miles of streams and rivers of the Upper Mississippi River Basin. That landscape covers 189,000 square miles, two-thirds of which support agriculture. The streams and rivers of the Basin are habitat to about 20 percent of the total U.S. freshwater fish.
“By approaching the entire watershed as one system, we can make a measurable difference to benefit both farmers and fish,” says Martin Konrad, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) fisheries biologist and co-chair of the Partnership’s steering committee.
Part of what makes the Upper Mississippi River Basin partnership unique is that, because such a large percentage of its landscape is privately owned and operated for agricultural use, with relatively little public land, farmers’ profitability is key.
Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Director of Environmental Programs and Services Roger Wolf also serves as co-chair of the FFP steering committee. He stresses the importance of engaging landowners to take the lead in tackling these issues. “This is about bringing resources together to address fish habitats, but also keeping the livelihood of agriculture a priority,” Wolf says.
Konrad says the partnership recognizes the expertise farmers have in managing the landscape. He says utilizing their leadership is necessary to achieve success, but admits engaging farmers is the biggest challenge.
“Farmers want to leave a legacy of being good conservationists, not only of the land they farm, but also of the streams running through it,” Konrad says. “This is not an attempt to regulate activities on their land; instead, we want farmers to know we’re here to assist them so they are the first to benefit.”
“Farmers are stewards of the land, and they want to do what’s right while they make a decent living,” says Kelly Hepler, board chair of the NFHAP. “The Fishers and Farmers Partnership helps farmers manage their land to be fish-friendly through sustainable agricultural practices and restoration projects. Working together, farmers and fish managers can make the lands and waters healthier, while maintaining farm productivity and income. This is what the National Fish Habitat Action Plan is all about: healthy habitat, healthy fish, healthy people and a healthy economy.”
Ken Lubinski, U. S. Geological Survey advisor to the FFP, emphasizes that the Partnership is centered on a “bottom-up” approach, rather than directives imposed by people who don’t know the local lay of the land.
“We hope to see projects initiated similar to the Meramec-Bourbeuse watershed project in Missouri,” Lubinski says. In that project, local landowners, with technical assistance from state and federal agency staff, formed a committee and, with funding from a flexible cost-share program, fenced their cows out of streams, providing alternate water sources. They demonstrated how off-stream watering helps improve turbidity and soil conditions.
The landowners’ resulting pride and their willingness to demonstrate successful practices made a huge impact. Farm tours attracted neighbors to see what was accomplished. Farmers helped each other choose materials and equipment. Contractors helped spread the word about available funds. The results showed that landowner-driven projects sell themselves.
“Farmers know best what practices will most benefit their environment,” Lubinski says. “We need to enable them to identify and address issues for which we can help provide funding. Our goal is not a lot of projects but projects that will multiply themselves.”
The Partnership will pursue funding assistance for local groups. The Partnership will also provide technical assistance, including stream assessments, agricultural practice evaluations and project monitoring guidance.
Lubinski notes, “For this Partnership to succeed in the long-term, it is the farmer’s voice confirming its value, more than anything else, that will encourage the federal government and others to continue support.”
Learn more about the National Fish Habitat Action Plan at fishhabitat.org.