Wetlands and grasslands are some of our most threatened national land resources across the country due to development pressure. Similarly, productive farmland is vulnerable to conversion for housing and commercial development. Thanks to the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), private landowners, land trusts, and other entities are able to obtain federal support in order to preserve working farms and ranches and restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and grasslands through long-term easements.
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ACEP is a new conservation easement program created by the 2014 Farm Bill. It combines three separate previous easement programs — the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP). The program is administered through USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
ACEP is divided into two tracks: a wetland easement component, which largely mirrors the former WRP, and an agricultural land easement component, which largely retains the purposes and functions of the former GRP and FRPP.
Wetland Easements Component
The purpose of the wetland easement component is to restore, protect, and enhance wetland values and functions on wetlands that have been in agricultural production. The program is competitive, with landowners submitting bids to USDA for enrollment.
There are two easement options – permanent and long-term (generally 30 years). For a permanent wetland easement, NRCS provides the lowest of the fair market value of the land, the amount corresponding to a geographical cap, and the offer made by the landowner. For a 30-year easement or contract, NRCS provides between 50 and 75 percent of the compensation that would be paid for a permanent easement.
For wetland easements, UDSA will pay the lowest of:
For easements valued at $500,000 or less, payments may be provided in lump sum or in no more than 10 annual installments. For easements valued at more than $500,000, payments must be made in at least 5 and not more than 10 annual installments.
Within the wetland easements component of ACEP, the new farm bill reauthorizes a wetlands reserve enhancement option — formerly known as the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) — through which NRCS partners with states, non-governmental organizations, or Indian Tribes to protect, restore, and enhance high priority wetlands.
As with WRP under the 2008 Farm Bill, the new Farm Bill allows producers to retain grazing rights as part of a wetland easement if the grazing activity is consistent with long-term wetland protection and enhancement goals for which the easement was established. The easement payment would be reduced by an amount equal to the grazing value.
For projects of “special significance” (which is not defined in the Farm Bill and is different than “grasslands of special significance”), USDA may waive any portion of an eligible entity’s cash contribution requirement, so long as landowner donates an amount equal to the waiver.
Agricultural Land Easement Component
The purpose of the agricultural land easement component is to protect farms from development, specifically to ensure farm viability for future generations, and to conserve grazing land, including rangeland, pasture and shrub land.
For agricultural land easements, NRCS provides up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the easement. For grasslands of special environmental significance, NRCS may contribute up to 75 percent of the fair market value of the easement.
All agricultural land easement enrollments under ACEP must have an Agricultural Land Easement Plan (ALEP), which includes:
Under the agricultural land easement track, ACEP funds are provided to non-profits, state and local agencies, and Indian tribes to purchase easements. Agricultural land easements are permanent, or, in states that do not allow permanent easements, as long-term as allowed by law. In contrast, funding for wetland easements (apart from wetland reserve enhancement projects) goes directly to landowners for the purchase of permanent or 30-year easements, or, in states that do not allow permanent or 30-year easements, as long-term as possible.
In order to qualify for a wetland easement, the proposed easement must be:
In order to qualify for an agricultural land easement, the proposed easement must:
Between 1990 and 2014, producers and partners protected over 2.6 million acres of wetlands, 1.1 million acres of farmland, and 340,000 acres of grassland through ACEP’s predecessor programs – WRP, FRPP, and GRP. Since the transition to ACEP in the 2014 Farm Bill, NRCS has obligated hundreds of millions of dollars to support the preservation of more than 240,000 acres through agricultural and wetland easements.
ACEP has been used to:
Read more about how ACEP can help conserve grasslands and wetlands:
Farmers, ranchers, and partners interested in ACEP should contact their local NRCS office.
For farmers and landowners interested in placing an agricultural land easement on their farm or ranchland, they may also contact their local land trust or state agriculture or conservation department or agency. The land trust or other eligible entity would then work with the farmer or landowner and NRCS to receive funding for the easement.
The application process for ACEP is competitive. Applications are ranked based on criteria developed by both the NRCS National Headquarters and NRCS State Conservationists. For both components of the program, the 2014 Farm Bill authorizes USDA to prioritize applications that include acres that will expire within a year from the Conservation Reserve Program.
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As mentioned above, the 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP by combining WRP, FRPP, and GRP, which Congress first authorized in the 1990, 1996, and 2002 Farm Bills, respectively.
The 2014 Farm Bill does not dictate how ACEP funding should be divided between wetland easements and agricultural land easements – that decision is left to USDA; and thus far, USDA has allocated funding based on demand. Relative to the 2008 Farm Bill, the 2014 Farm Bill provides far less funding for conservation easements.
The 2008 Farm Bill provided an average of $410 million per year for WRP, $65 million per year for GRP, and $150 million per year for FRPP. As described in the chart below, the 2014 Farm Bill provides just a fraction of this amount. This is particularly problematic for wetland easements, which tend to be more expensive than agricultural land easements.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program Funding
|Fiscal Year||Total Funding Available ($ millions)
|5 yr total||$2,025|
|10 yr total||$3,275|
Please note: The funding levels in the chart above show the amount of mandatory funding reserved by the 2014 Farm Bill for this program to be provided through USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation. However, Congress does at times pass subsequent appropriations legislation that caps the funding level for a particular year for a particular program at less than provided by the farm bill in order to use the resulting savings to fund a different program. In addition, ACEP is subject to automatic cuts as part of an annual sequestration process established by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Therefore, despite its “mandatory” status, the funding level for a given year could be less than the farm bill dictates should the Appropriations Committees decide to raid the farm bill to fund other programs under its jurisdiction.
Title II, Subtitle D (Section 2301) of the Agricultural Act of 2014 amends Title XII of the Food Security Act of 1985, to be codified at 16 U.S.C. Section 3865.
Last updated in October 2016.