Thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land in southwest Minnesota will be converted to native plants and grasses in an ambitious effort to protect local waters from polluted runoff, thanks to a major new infusion of cash for rural conservation.

A highly anticipated state-federal deal, announced Tuesday by Gov. Mark Dayton, will provide $350 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $150 million in state funds to the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) which pays farmers to idle vulnerable land near lakes, streams and rivers.

"This is an outstanding day for conservation in Minnesota," Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told a crowd at the Capitol signing ceremony.

The voluntary program targets up to 60,000 acres of farmland, including stretches along the Minnesota River, one of the country's most polluted rivers and a major contributor to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. That's nearly 100 square miles that will be returned to native grasslands and wetlands.

Native plantings filter water, prevent erosion and provide critical habitat for a wide range of prairie species including pheasants, badgers, the meadowlark and bobolink, and pollinators such as the beloved monarch butterfly.

"We are thrilled for the state of Minnesota," Angie Becker Kudelka, assistant director at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, which will administer the program. "This is a milestone … but it's just the beginning."

The money will also help some landowners affected by Minnesota's controversial new buffer law, which requires people with land along public waters and ditches to plant strips of perennial vegetation to prevent erosion and polluted runoff.

The program encourages three conservation practices: planting buffer strips of native plants between farmland and bodies of water, restoring wetlands and planting land above municipal drinking wells to keep groundwater clean.

Applications are expected to start in April.

Land will be selected based on an environmental benefit score, with landowners earning points based on the number of feet along a body of water, for instance, or the percent of land in a vulnerable wellhead protection zone.

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