Teresa Lasseter, administrator of USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA), has announced a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Longleaf Pine Initiative to increase longleaf pine forests by 250,000 acres throughout nine Southern states.

"As a Georgia native, I'm keenly aware of the important role that longleaf pine forests play in the overall environmental and financial health of the South," said Lasseter. "This project builds on the more than 200,000 acres of longleaf pines already planted through other CRP projects, and it represents the Bush Administration's continued commitment to working with private landowners to improve the land through Cooperative Conservation."

Lasseter made the announcement at the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, held in Moultrie, Ga. U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss and Acting Georgia FSA State Executive Director Harry Kemp participated in the ceremony.

Producers in the following states, the natural range of longleaf pine forests, may participate in the CRP Longleaf Pine Initiative: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia

Longleaf pine forests provide many environmental benefits and recreational opportunities. However, a variety of forces reduced longleaf pine forest acreage in the South over the past 100 years. During that time, longleaf forests declined from 60 million acres to fewer than 4 million acres.

Restoring 250,000 acres of longleaf pine ecosystems across the southern United States will provide critical habitat and nesting cover for many wildlife species, including quail, turkeys and some threatened and endangered species.

Expanding longleaf forests will protect land and waterways from erosion and sedimentation. Planting longleaf pine trees will help improve drinking water supplies and increase hunting opportunities.

Also, longleaf stands withstand the effects of hurricanes better than other softwood trees.

Additionally, these wooded areas provide valuable forest products and sequester greenhouse gases.

To be eligible for the CRP Longleaf Pine Initiative, land must be located in the National Longleaf Pine Conservation Priority Area (historic range of longleaf pine forests) and must be capable of being restored to a viable ecosystem.

Sign-up begins Dec. 1, 2006 at local FSA offices for the CRP Longleaf Pine Initiative. Enrollment runs continuously until the 250,000-acre goal is met, or Dec. 31, 2007, whichever comes first.

CRP is the nation's largest private-lands conservation program, with more than 36 million acres enrolled. Farmers and ranchers enrolling in voluntary 10- to 15-year CRP contracts plant grasses and trees in crop fields and along streams. The plantings stop soil and nutrients from running into regional waterways and reducing water quality. They also provide wildlife habitat and improve air quality.

More information on the CRP Longleaf Pine Initiative is available at local FSA offices and in the program fact sheet located online at: http://www.fsa.usda.gov.