Agricultural Conservation Easement Program


Conserving wetlands, grassland, and farm and ranch land through long-term conservation easements

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.

Learn More About ACEP!

 

Program Basics

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:

  • The fair market value of the land, as determined by USDA, using the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practices;
  • An area wide market analysis or survey; or
  • An offer made by the landowner.

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:

  • A description of the activities that promote the long-term viability of the land to meet the purposes for which the easement was acquired, including a farm or ranch succession plan;
  • A description of the farm management system;
  • Additional or specific criteria associated with permissible and prohibited activities consistent with the terms of the deed;
  • A limit on the impervious surfaces to be allowed consistent with the farm or ranch management system and consistent with the limitations identified in the deed;
  • A description of USDA’s right of ingress and egress;
  • Identification of conservation or management activities that address the purposes and resource concerns for which the parcel was selected (such practices can be also identified in a cross-referenced and attached component plan such as an Organic Systems Plan for organic operations or a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan for animal feeding operations)
  • A grassland management plan, highly erodible land (HEL) conservation plan, or forest management plan for land that contains grassland, HEL, or forestland, respectively.

Eligibility

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:

  • Farmed or converted wetlands, together with adjacent land that is functionally dependent on that land; or
  • Flooded cropland or grassland that was used for agricultural production prior to flooding from the natural overflow of either a closed basin lake or a pothole; or
  • Farmed wetlands and adjoining lands that are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), have high wetland functions and values, and would return to production after they leave CRP; or
  • Riparian areas that link protected wetlands; or
  • Other wetlands that would not otherwise be eligible, if USDA determines that the inclusion of such wetlands would add to the functional value of the easement.

In order to qualify for an agricultural land easement, the proposed easement must:

  • Be subject to a pending offer for purchase of an agricultural land easement from an eligible entity;
  • Have prime, unique, or productive soil, and meet one of the following criteria:
  • Contain historical or archaeological resources; or
  • Protect grazing uses by restoring and conserving land; or
  • Further a State or local policy consistent with the purposes of the program; and
  • Meet one of the following criteria:
  • Be cropland, rangeland, grassland; or
  • Be land that contains forbs or shrub land for which grazing is the predominant use; or
  • Be located in an area that has been historically dominated by grass-land, forbs, or shrubs and could provide habitat for animal or plant populations of significant ecological value; or
  • Be pastureland or nonindustrial private forestland that contributes to the economic viability of an offered parcel or serves as a buffer to protect such land from development.

The Program in Action

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:

  • protect and restore up to 580 acres of prairie pothole wetlands and associated tallgrass prairie uplands;
  • acquire and restore wetlands in high priority small watersheds in Kentucky to reduce sediment and nutrients entering the Mississippi River;
  • protect 38 ranches in the Pioneer Mountain region of Idaho, connecting sage grouse habitat to almost 2.4 million acres of public lands; and
  • generate recreational benefits, such as hunting, hiking, canoeing.

Read more about how ACEP can help conserve grasslands and wetlands:

How to Apply and Program Resources

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.

Read about the latest news on ACEP on our blog!

Program History, Funding, and Farm Bill Changes

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)
2014 $400
2015 $425
2016 $450
2017 $500
2018 $250
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.

Authorizing Language

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.