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For the birds: Grass habitat in western Montgomery County

State pays to keep property natural

Tuesday, January 15, 2013
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— According to Montgomery County landowner Richard Bromberg, the state Grassland Protection Program isn’t a source free money — there are strings attached.

“They’re not just giving it away,” he said.

For years the Department of Environmental Conservation has been paying owners of grasslands in certain target areas across the state, like the western half of Montgomery County, to essentially keep their acreage in its natural state. The idea is to stop the annual 6.5 percent decrease in such land and preserve the habitat of about a dozen endangered species of grassland bird including the short-eared owl, Henslow’s sparrow and the upland sandpiper.

For the past five years, Bromberg has been paid $65 a year for each of his 78 acres enrolled in the program.

“At first it was about the money,” he said. “It paid my taxes. Now I think about the birds, too.”

Based upon his five-year contract, he committed to not develop his section of grassland at the southern edge of Minden and generally stay away from it from April to August — nesting season.

But it’s not just a matter of collecting checks and letting the land sit. “I’ve had to remove windrows and brush,” he said. “It’s a matter of a lot of man hours.”

He explained that birds nesting in the grass have to be able to see predators coming from a long way off. Trees provide cover for hungry animals and must be removed.

Also, to preserve the character of the grasses, Bromberg’s 78-acre section of land is divided into thirds, one section getting a mowing each year at the end of August. In the area that was mowed, the grass must be mulched and left in place in one third of the area and removed from the other two-thirds of the area.

It’s rather a fiddly process, taking Bromberg a year and a half to initially enroll, and yielding only about $5,000 a year. But Bromberg does all his own work and says it’s worth it.

“I used to rent my land to a sheep farmer,” he said. “I was lucky to get $25 an acre. I’d be hard-pressed to rent my land for more than what the DEC pays.”

Happily, he and his land are set to get a big raise. The current contract is up in May. He plans to stay in the program, but since the last time he signed up, rates have increased. Soon he’ll be getting $110 per year for each acre, which the DEC determines to be the going rate for land rented out to corn farmers.

Late last year the DEC received $1 million in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grants to expand the program and further protect endangered grassland birds. With the new money it opened up the application process to landowners in eight regions across the state, but a day before the original application deadline, fewer people had applied than hoped for, DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said.

The deadline was recently pushed back from Jan. 15 to Feb. 1.

“We’re hopeful more will have the opportunity to apply with the extension,” she said.

She couldn’t say how many applications the DEC was hoping for or how many came in, but said the smaller number likely had to do with the application period being over the holidays.

A point made by Montgomery County Economic Development Director Ken Rose brought up a possible alternative explanation for the lack of applications: The land maintenance can be expensive if it has to be hired out.

Years ago when his office was attempting to convince Beech-Nut to put down roots in the Florida industrial park, he said the DEC discovered endangered northern harriers in an area of the park. To secure building permits the county IDA had to set up an 89-acre grassland habitat for the birds, which requires basically the same system of mowing and tree removal Bromberg is so familiar with.

However, unlike Bromberg, the IDA didn’t get paid.

Even if it had been paid the same as Bromberg will get over the next five year, the money would not have covered even half of the cost of keeping the land grassy.

“Over the past five years, the initial work and upkeep ran us over $113,400,” Rose said.

 
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