NRCS rolls out regs for new Ag Conservation Easement Program

By Stephen Davies

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 19, 2016 - Fewer acres would be purchased as easements to protect wetlands and other sensitive lands under the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which is replacing three programs repealed by the 2014 farm bill.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service published its final rule for ACEP in the Oct.18 Federal Register, after accepting comments on an interim final rule issued in May 2015. ACEP combines provisions of the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), all of which were discontinued by the 2014 legislation.

About half the amount of money will be available to buy easements, NRCS said in its final rule. Where WRP, GRP, and FRPP received $691 million per year from 2009-2013, ACEP will receive about $368 million annually, NRCS said.

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The amount of funding available and the increase in per-acre costs will result in a corresponding decrease in acreage enrolled under ACEP, NRCS said. From 2009-2013, approximately 1.7 million acres were enrolled under WRP, GRP and FRPP - an average of 340,000 acres per year.

But from 2014-2018, NRCS projects enrollment of 149,000 acres per year, for a total of about 746,000 acres. Most of that acreage - about 522,000 acres - would be enrolled under the new ACEP-Wetlands Reserve Easement program, with the rest enrolled under the ACEP-Agricultural Land Easement program.

NRCS said in the rule that the increased per-acre cost “is due in part to rising land values and in part to the projected enrollment shares in ACEP.”

The final ACEP rule “contains very few new provisions compared to the source programs, most of which increase the flexibility for program administration,” NRCS said in a regulatory impact analysis released last year. NRCS summarized the significant changes:

--“The agency has program-wide authority to subordinate, modify, exchange, or terminate an easement under certain circumstances, an expansion of authority that had previously applied only to WRP;

--“The non-federal contribution towards the purchase of the agricultural land easement varies slightly from the previous FRPP non-federal contribution. In particular, if a landowner makes a charitable donation of a large percentage of the agricultural land easement's fair market value, the landowner donation will reduce the federal government's contribution to a greater extent than previously required under FRPP;

--“All ACEP easements will be managed according to an easement plan. Previously, WRP and GRP required some form of management plan for all easements and FRPP only required a conservation plan on highly erodible cropland;

--“The landowner tenure requirement for wetland reserve easements is 24 months compared to seven years under the former WRP.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which submitted detailed comments on the interim rule, was generally pleased with the final product, but NSAC Policy Director Ferd Hoefner also said that he and his colleagues were still analyzing it.

Many of our concerns regarding the earlier interim rule revolved around the fact that it prioritized neither natural resource enhancement (beyond farmland conservation) nor beginning farmer access within the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component of ACEP,” Hoefner said in an email.

“On first read, it looks like NRCS has taken some initial steps to address both of these issues,” he said. “The final rule requires ALE agreements to conserve and enhance a diversity of natural resources, and allows NRCS to waive a portion of the cash contribution requirement if the landowner agrees to implement a comprehensive conservation plan according to NRCS conservation practice standards.”

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But while commending NRCS for those steps, Hoefner said “they are not enough to ensure that natural resource conservation becomes a core component of farmland easements. The rule also makes some limited progress in increasing farmland access for underserved producers by clarifying that an Option to Purchase at Agricultural Value (or other requirements to maintain land in agriculture production) qualifies as a type of succession plan, and by incentivizing easements that facilitate land transfer to beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers.”

Hoefner said there is room for improvement. “We look forward to further strengthening ACEP in the 2018 farm bill,” he said.

American Farmland Trust also said it is taking a close look at the provisions of the new rule. John Larson, AFT's senior vice president of policy and programs, said it appears that NRCS “has tried to accommodate many of AFT's comments, and we will continue to work with USDA on this critically important issue of preserving the nation's farm and ranch land and the farmers who feed us.”


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