May 2, 2014
On Thursday, May 1, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Department is now accepting applications for FY 2014 financial assistance through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Applications must be submitted by the individual state deadline or June 6, 2014, whichever is earlier.
The 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP by combining the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and Farm and Ranch land Program (FRPP). The Farm Bill divides ACEP into two components: a wetland easement component, which largely mirrors the former WRP, and an agricultural land easement component, which is intended to retain the purposes and functionality of GRP and FRPP.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will make $366 million available for conservation easements through ACEP this year, though it has not yet determined how much of the $366 million will go toward wetland easements versus agricultural land easements. The 2014 Farm Bill leaves that determination to the Department rather than including it in statute.
While $366 million is far, far less than what the 2008 Farm Bill provided WRP, GRP, and FRPP annually, the new easement program now has a permanent funding baseline. This means that, should Congress fail to pass a new farm bill five years from now, wetland and grassland conservation efforts will not once again be stranded without funding to enroll new acres. NSAC helped champion the successful effort to secure this change to permanent funding in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Agricultural Land Easements
Under the agricultural land component, funds are provided to eligible entities to purchase easements to protect working farms and ranches and to conserve grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrub land.
NRCS may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. This rises to 75 percent in cases where NRCS determines that grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected.
According to the NRCS release, “application priority will be given to proposals preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses and maximizing the protection of land devoted to growing the nation’s food supply.” The 2014 Farm Bill also authorizes USDA to prioritize applications that include grassland acres that will expire from the Conservation Reserve Program within one year.
Under the wetland easement component, funding is provided to landowners for the purchase of long-term or permanent easements to restore, protect and enhance wetland values and functions on eligible wetland that has been in agricultural production.
According to the NRCS press release, “applications also will be prioritized based on the easement’s potential for protecting and enhancing habitat for migratory birds, fish and other wildlife.” The 2014 Farm Bill also authorizes USDA to prioritize applications that include valuable wetland acres that will expire from the Conservation Reserve Program within one year and that are likely to otherwise return to production.
The release makes no mention of the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP), though the 2014 Farm Bill retains the subprogram within ACEP. We expect the wetland easement component and WREP to function much like WRP did under the 2008 Farm Bill.
Important Details to Follow
As the ACEP sign up moves forward in FY 2014, we will be looking out for more information from NRCS, including additional details on how it will break out program funding between wetland conservation and agricultural land conservation. We expect NRCS to issue an interim final rule (IFR) for the new program at some point this summer.
While not mentioned in today’s press release, one of the purposes of the agricultural land easement component is to protect agricultural viability for future generations in order to ensure preserved farmland is accessible to new farmers. NSAC developed the initial policy proposal for this purpose, and we will be tracking its implementation by NRCS moving forward. Similarly, during the Farm Bill debate, NSAC championed a successful effort to reduce the waiting period for new landowners to become eligible for wetland easements from seven years to two years. This change is not mentioned in today’s press release.
How to Enroll
To enroll land through agricultural land easements, eligible partners, such as land trusts and local agencies, should talk with their NRCS field office about developing an easement proposal.
To enroll land through wetland reserve easements, landowners may apply directly at their NRCS field office at any time.