Thanks to its status as the world's most isolated island chain, Hawaii boasts hundreds of species that don't exist anywhere else on Earth. But because of that isolation, and the threat caused by invasive species, Hawaii is also the endangered species capital of the world, with "more endangered species per square mile on these islands than any other place on the planet," according to the web site of Honolulu's Bishop Museum.

State and federal officials are hoping to change that with a new program -- the first of its kind -- that will pay Hawaii farmers over the next 20 years to plant native species on unused portions of their land. The $67 million Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, announced last week, is designed to beef up dwindling populations of native plants as well as of endangered Hawaiian birds, insects, coral and other species.

This program will "help restore habitats of native Hawaiian species, improve water quality in stream systems, reduce the spread of invasive species and enhance coastal and coral reef health," the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a joint statement.

Under the program's guidelines, farmers may convert a portion of their pastures and croplands to "native trees, grasses, and other vegetation through application of conservation practices," such as planting hardwood trees, creating forest buffers to improve natural water flow, and restoring wetlands. Eligible land must be physically capable of plantings and adjacent to streams, rivers and lakes. The program aims to convert up to 15,000 acres to create these enhanced habitats over the next five years and maintain them for a total of 20 years.

Landowners will be partially reimbursed for their expenses and will also receive annual incentives and payments to maintain the replanted and restored wetlands. The land will still belong to the farmers, but under terms of the program, they will receive "rent payments" to keep the areas from being otherwise developed. Payments include a one-time $100 per acre enrolment fee; annual rental fees of $43 to $72 per acre, depending on how the conserved land is being used; and periodic management payments of up to $450 over the period of the contract to help control invasive species.

Farmers on the islands of Hawaii and Maui may enroll in the program starting April 1. Other islands will be phased into the program through 2013.

The feds will fork over some $54 million and the state the remaining $13 million over 20 years for the conservation program.

A report published last year by Hawaii's Division of Forestry and Wildlife in the journal Biological Conservation says the state received just 4 percent (or $30 million) of annual federal conservation funds for endangered birds from 1996 to 2004, even though 31 percent of the U.S.'s endangered birds are native to the islands.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officially lists 329 Hawaiian species as endangered or threatened. The Bush administration last year proposed protecting an additional 48 Hawaiian species -- 45 plants, two birds and one insect; a final decision is pending.