April 1, 2019
Last week, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced the availability of $450 million through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) to restore critical wetlands and protect agricultural lands and grasslands. ACEP can help land owners improve environmental quality and wildlife habitat, as well as protect open spaces and/or historic spaces. ACEP’s wetland protection and restoration provisions can also help improve water quality, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, and protect biological diversity.
Farmers, ranchers, and partners interested in applying for ACEP in FY 2019 should contact their local U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office. Farmers or landowners interested in placing an agricultural land easement on their farm or ranch land should also contact their local land trust or state agriculture or conservation department or agency. States are allowed to establish their own cutoff dates for the FY 2019 ACEP signup, but must provide at least 30 days from the announcement of fund availability.
The 2018 Farm Bill gave ACEP a major increase in annual funding – an increase of $200 million per year as compared to levels under the 2014 Farm Bill. This increase restores the cut that ACEP suffered after three previously separate easement programs – the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program – were consolidated into ACEP under the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill also added new provisions to prioritize projects that maintain farm viability and land affordability.
ACEP (and several other conservation programs) will continue to be administered under the existing regulations of the 2014 Farm Bill until NRCS is able to develop implementation plans for the new provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill. NRCS is directed by the 2018 Farm Bill to have their new implementation plans in place in time for the FY 2020 sign-up period. More details on the specific changes that will go immediately into effect in FY 2019 are available here.
ACEP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill through the combination of the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. The program is administered through NRCS, and is divided into two tracks: a wetland easement component, and an agricultural land easement component.
The purpose of the wetland easement component is to restore, protect, and enhance values and functions on wetlands that have been in agricultural production. The agricultural land easement component is utilized to protect farms from development and ensure farm viability for future generations by conserving land (including rangeland, pasture, and shrubland).
Under the agricultural land easement track, ACEP funds are awarded to non-profits, state and local agencies, and Indian tribes to purchase easements. These easements are permanent, or in states that do not allow permanent easements, as long-term as allowed by law. Under the wetland easement track, funding goes directly to landowners for the purchase of 30-year easements, or in states that do not allow permanent or 30-year easements, as long-term as possible.