for National Geographic News
The request struck Dave Hedlin, a farmer in Washington's fertile Skagit Valley, as particularly odd: Conservationists wanted him to voluntarily flood his fields.
"Most of us have spent our entire lifetimes trying to keep water off the land," said Hedlin, whose farmlands are nestled among inlets, bays, and estuaries in the shadow of the snowcapped Mount Baker volcano.
But he decided to take part in a pilot project run by the Nature Conservancy, which temporarily floods agricultural fields to restore shorebird habitat. (See photos.)
The flooding would be part of his farm's regular crop rotation, and in theory would pay for itself by filling the fields with natural fertilizer, drowning disease-causing bacteria in soil, and boosting crop yields.
In turn, the wetlands would again become a rest and refueling station for migratory shorebirds between their Arctic breeding grounds and southern winter retreats.
Of the 53 shorebirds that breed in North America, more than half are at grave risk, according to the U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, a program run by a coalition of public and private organizations.
After three years, early results suggest that the project is working: Fifteen shorebird species have returned to the restored wetlands.
So far, three participating farmers have been happy with the experiment, including Hedlin, who said that he has not suffered financially.
Before the valley was converted to agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century, its wetlands had teemed with crustaceans, fish, and bugs.
But since the wetlands became farmlands, most of the 50,000-some birds that visit each year feed in the nearby estuaries instead.
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