It’s known as the Wetland Reserve Program and Rick Pate thought it sounded like a pretty good deal, one that could provide a solid financial future for family members down the road.
The timing was also perfect and he couldn’t wait to sign up for a federal project aimed at setting aside and preserving wetland areas in Alabama for future generations to enjoy.
Pate, who is mayor of Lowndesboro, operates a successful landscape business in Montgomery and is helping his parents oversee their cattle operation in rural Lowndes County. He went to an informational meeting at the county seat in Hayneville back in April to learn more about the wetland program.
What sounded good at first—especially federal funding to establish and improve wetland areas—began to crumble as Pate looked into details. It didn’t take him long to see numbers that appeared more than a bit inequitable to him.
Case in point was neighboring Wilcox County where wetland appraisals were listed at $1,805 an acre while his land was valued at $1,520. That $285 difference might not seem like much for one acre, but, when it’s compounded many times over, it added up to quite a monetary disparity in Pate’s mind.
"I just couldn’t understand why land in Wilcox County was worth that much more than ours in Lowndes County," he said, as he recalled his initial reaction to a map of Alabama’s 67 counties and how much was being offered in each one of them under the Wetland Reserve Program.
A company hired to examine property that might be included in the program came up with a difference of $2,042 an acre between Baldwin and Mobile counties, the highest in Alabama, and the $1,520 an acre for Lowndes, Lamar and Fayette counties, the three lowest in the state.
Numerous factors are involved in appraising property, especially when swampy wetland areas are involved, but Pate kept wondering why 15 counties were given appraisals of $1,805 an acres. Several of them were Black Belt counties not that far from Lowndes with similar soil and wetland areas.
The first person he went to for help was U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright, D-Montgomery, and he wasn’t disappointed, especially when the Second District Congressman and Meg Joseph, his chief of staff, arrived at Pate’s house on Aug. 5. It was part of a 93 city swing through Bright’s sprawling district
"I laid out our problem to them that NCRS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) had admitted it was wrong," Pate said, adding he was then told "I had no recourse to appeal."
Pate had already decided to set aside 425 acres in his family’s 600-acre spread for the wetlands program. He was considering a 30-year easement period during which federal funds would be provided to his family for hardwood trees, duck ponds and other wetland additions and improvements.
Although he had not signed an official contract with the federal government, Pate had, in effect, agreed to agree to such a deal—pending a fair settlement.
"I could pull out of the program and reapply next year," he said. "The current year’s program will not actually begin till the winter of 2010-2011. I’d also be required to repay the federal government money for appraising my land for the program."
His father’s failing health was a big reason why Pate was seriously considering enrollment in the wetlands program and he felt extended delays could prove costly to his family, especially if funding was curtailed or the program ended due to continuing budgetary problems having virtually paralyzed some federal agencies.
Pate felt the issue was vital to the welfare of his family. So did several other farmers with similar concerns in Lowndes County. That led them to insist Bright personally take an interest in their bid to right an apparent wrong.
"I wanted (Bright) to take the lead and not one of his staff members," said Pate, 54. "I felt that was the only way for us to get some relief. When you’ve got a congressman going to bat for you in Washington, it carries a lot more weight than if one of his staff people does it."
That was an important consideration for Pate and his farming friends, and Bright didn’t let them down. In early October, Bright questioned two USDA officials seeking specifics about conservation programs contained in the 2008 Farm Bill.
One of those officials was Dave White, chief of the NRCS. The other was Jonathan Coppess, administrator of the Farm Service Agency. The two testified before the Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research Subcommittee.
Bright asked White about disparities involving the Geographic Area Rate Cap (GARC) which sets land values in connection with the Wetlands Program. He also wanted to know about the establishment of land values which would play a key role in the program. He wanted to know details about how those land values were reached.
The congressman noted Lowndes County received a $20 per acre increase from 2008 to 2009 while Wilcox County farmers got a $305 hike.
"We don’t have a problem with those folks over in Wilcox County and hope they can get as much as possible, but we don’t feel we should receive anything less than what they get," Pate said.
Bright asked White if anything could be done to see that an appeal process could apply to farmers in those counties who believe they received an inaccurate GARC amount.
That’s when White said something Bright no doubt will remember for a long time—a federal bureaucrat who admitted a mistake had been made—kinda.
"Well, he didn’t actually use the word ‘mistake,’ but he came pretty close when he said, ‘I am more than aware of it, Mr. Bright, and I’ve been contacted by your office, of course. You’ve taken a great interest in this.’"
The good news, Bright said, was when White told him someone from the Alabama Department of Conservation would be going back to work "and redo those Geographic Area Rate Caps."
"I will guarantee those producers (in Lowndes County) have enough acreage, and if they chose to, to move forward with the WRP (Wetland Reserve Program)," Bright said he was told. "There’s enough acres in the cap that Congress gave us that we can do that. So any producer who felt the amount kept them out will have that option in Fiscal Year 2010 which is what we are in. We are going to redo those GARCs."
Small town mayors rarely see themselves as politicians or statesmen, but Pate has formed a friendship with Bright for what he has been able to do in such a short time.
"The story here isn’t so much the problem we face as it is the huge bureaucracy that can’t be moved," he said. "It’s like they stonewall you. It’s not a bad mistake to make a mistake, the important thing is to recognize it was made and to correct it."
The Wetland Reserve Program can be more than a bit complicated, but those directly connected to it have become familiar with it since the start of the year. That includes Bright and his staff.
Republicans had controlled their Second District seat in Congress ever since the Goldwater sweep of 1964, but Bright’s conservatively-moderate approach to politics swept him into Congress last year and he hopes to stay there for awhile.
He isn’t likely to pick up much Republican cross-over voter support in Lowndes County in next year’s election, but the former Montgomery mayor really doesn’t expect much because the county is predominantly black and heavily Democratic. In other words, it’s his county. He beat his Republican opponent Jay Love by a 4-to-1 margin in his 2008 victory.
When asked who was the last national Democrat he had voted for, Pate broke into a big laugh and said, "FDR," one of America’s most liberal Democratic presidents. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected 22 years before Pate was born.
"All I can say is I’ve never voted for a Democrat running for state and national offices, but this could be the first time," said Pate.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.