USDA earmarks $332 million for conservation easements

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, March 31, 2015 - One of USDA's voluntary conservation programs for producers - the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) - will provide $332 million in financial and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers and other private landowners who enroll acreage in conservation easements by May 15.

"Conservation easements are an important tool to help these landowners and partners voluntarily provide long-term protection of our nation's farmland, ranchland, wetlands and grasslands for future generations," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.

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In addition to protecting wildlife habitat and the ecological productivity of working lands, ACEP easements contribute to the long-term viability of the nation's food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses, USDA said.

There are four easement options offered through ACEP:

-Permanent easements, in which the property is held as an easement in perpetuity and NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement value and between 75 and 100 percent of restoration costs.

-30-year easements, which expire after 30 years and NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the purchase price of the easement and of the restoration costs.

-Term easements, which are effective for as long as applicable state law allows. NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the purchase price for the easement and of its restoration.

-30-year contracts, which are only available on land owned by Native American tribes.

Since the ACEP program was launched last year, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has successfully enrolled 485 new easements on approximately 145,000 acres of farmland, grassland and wetlands.

Vilsack said easements are protecting major environmental sites like the Florida Everglades, where USDA has invested $18 million. The program has also helped protect endangered species in California and native grasslands in Nebraska that provide habitat for bighorn sheep and elk, he said.

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The 2014 farm bill created the ACEP program by combining the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The spending breakdown between the two missions of ACEP - open land and wetland easements - will roughly follow the historical breakdown of the FRPP, GRP and WRP programs with about 60 percent of the funding going toward wetland easements and the remaining funding supporting open space easements, NRCS Chief Jason Weller said today during a conference call.

American Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs are eligible to partner with NRCS to purchase conservation easements. A key change under the new agricultural land easement component is the new "grasslands of special environmental significance" that will protect high-quality grasslands that are under threat of conversion to cropping, urban development and other non-grazing uses, USDA said.

Landowners may also enroll crop, range, pasture and nonindustrial private forest lands in agricultural easements by completing an agricultural land easement plan and a cooperative agreement with NRCS. NRCS prioritizes applications that protect agricultural uses and related conservation values, according to the USDA.

Wetland easements, which require landowners to enter into a purchase agreement with NRCS and provide a wetland reserve restoration easement plan, can be created on farmed or converted wetlands that are suitable for restoration. NRCS selects applications based on the proposed easement's potential for protecting and enhancing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife.

“We know that conservation works,” Vilsack echoed. “We know that nitrogen runoff has been reduced by over 3.5 billion pounds, phosphorus reduced by 700 million pounds (and) net greenhouse gas emissions have seen reductions of over 360 million metric tons,” as a result of USDA conservation programs.

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