By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It's what farmers -- and wildlife enthusiasts -- have been waiting for, a long-rumored general enrollment in the popular Conservation Reserve Program.

With nearly a million acres of CRP ground either already out of the program or exiting this year, it's coming at the best possible time.

Enrollment in the CRP program begins Monday, and Farm Service Agency personnel were rushing to get trained this week.

While questions surrounding the program still abound, Matt Smith is delighted to see the enrollment period. Smith, based at Lake Wilson, is the agricultural liaison for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. He joined FSA employees earlier this week in Hays for a training session.

Smith has high hopes for benefits that will fall to wildlife, as well as farmers who enroll land in the popular program.

In concert with wildlife groups, the program has identified special priority areas. Land within those areas are automatically eligible for the program, primarily because of the benefits, such as for the lesser prairie chicken.

That priority area is generally in southwest Kansas, but a large section reaches up into northwest Kansas, Ness, Trego, Gove, Logan and Wallace counties, for example.

There's another priority area that involves water protection for northwest Kansas reservoirs.

"That's the core pheasant area," Smith said.

There are several priority areas in the eastern half of the state, most of those dealing with water quality issues.

Kansas has always been a strong CRP state, and with as much as 41βΡ2 million acres of ground expected to be accepted into the program, it's possible that a big chunk of land that is nearly out or has already gone out of the program could be brought back into the fold.

Nationally, about 41βΡ2 million acres of land is expected to expire this year, Smith said.

There will be considerable interest, he said, and some areas will be happy to put the land back into the program.

Smith said in priority areas, farmers will have the ability to boost their ratings by the cover options they select.

"The better it is for wildlife, the better its rating is going to be," he said of offerings by farmers.

Land offered for the program is judged on a ratings system, in which points are awarded for several categories.

Some of the expired acres have already been broken out and put back into production.

That could reduce some public access.

"I think our walk-in habitat area program is going to be significantly reduced this year," Smith said of what is generally known as the WIHA program. "We don't know how much."

WIHA is a program that allows KDWP to pay farmers a small amount for land, in exchange for giving access for hunting to the general public.

Much of that land has been idled under federal CRP.

While the numbers are still uncertain, Smith said it's possible the loss could amount to about 100,000 acres.

"We'll still be close to a million acres in the program," he said.