NSAC's Blog

Threats to Conservation Easement Funding Put Farmland and Wetlands at Risk

September 27, 2017

Chesapeake Bay wetland. Photo credit: USDA.

America’s wetlands, grasslands, and farmland are under increasing threat of conversion to other land uses – wetlands and grasslands are routinely targeted for conversion to crop production, while existing farmland is often threatened by conversion to commercial or residential uses. It is critical that we protect these lands and their existing uses because each serves an important function in our society and ecosystem. Without farmland, we lose our nation’s food security as well as the livelihoods of food producing and rural families. If we convert our wetlands and grasslands, we lose highly productive ecosystems that support an abundance of plants and animals, and provide a wide range of ecological benefits such as water filtration, flood mitigation, and carbon sequestration.

The US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) helps landowners, land trusts, and other entities protect these lands with long-term and permanent easements. ACEP, which was established under the 2014 Farm Bill and is administered by USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), has two easement components – one for wetlands and one for agricultural land. The agricultural land easement component also includes a funding pool for Grasslands of Special Environmental Significance.

NRCS recently released state-by-state data for ACEP for fiscal year (FY) 2016, which the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has analyzed below to determine how the program is being utilized.

Summary of FY 2016 Data

In FY 2016, USDA awarded over $285 million in financial and technical assistance through ACEP for 486 wetland, grassland, and farmland conservation easements, spanning 170,567 acres nationwide. These numbers might seem large, but they are actually alarmingly low given the demand for the program and the important ecological benefits that these easements convey. As a point of contrast, one of ACEP’s predecessor programs, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), provided an average of $525 million annually between 2009 and 2013 before it was rolled into ACEP in 2014.

Of the total financial assistance (FA) that ACEP provided in FY 2016, 41 percent ($95.4 million) was obligated to agricultural land easements, and 59 percent ($136.9 million) was obligated to wetland easements. This division of funds in FY 2016 is a significant departure from previous years, and most likely is due to wetland easement contracts not being finalized before the end of the FY 2016 application cycle. Those contracts are not reflected in the FY 2016 numbers, and instead will be carried over into FY 2017.

By comparison, in FY 2015, 31 percent of ACEP funding was obligated to agricultural land easements and 69 percent was obligated to wetland easements. In FY 2014, 66.5 percent of ACEP funding went to wetland easements and 33.5 percent went to agricultural land easements. Prior to 2014, ACEP existed as three separate programs – WRP, the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP). Between 2009 and 2013, WRP received an average of 71 percent of easement funding annually while GRP and FRPP combined received 29 percent.

Wetland easements made up 57 percent of ACEP projects and 23 percent of ACEP acres in FY 2016, while agricultural land easements made up 43 percent of projects and 77 percent of acres. In FY 2015, the breakdown in the number of projects was similar: 60 percent were wetland easement projects and 40 percent were agricultural land easement projects.

State-By-State Breakdown

Between FY 2015 and FY 2016 the distribution of ACEP awards across states shifted slightly. In 2016, Colorado and Missouri joined the list of top ten states in terms of total ACEP funding awarded, replacing Texas and Ohio, which were on the top ten list in FY 2015. Florida, which was number one in the country in terms of dollars in FY 2015, dropped to number eight in FY 2016, while Montana, which was number 10 in FY 2015, jumped to number three.

Top ten states in funding obligated for ACEP assistance (financial and technical assistance combined) for all types of easements in FY 2016:

State Dollars Obligated
California $23 million
Arkansas $19 million
Montana $17 million
Louisiana $17 million
Iowa $15 million
Kentucky $14 million
Colorado $14 million
Florida $11 million
South Dakota $11 million
Missouri $11 million

Wetlands Easements – by number of projects:

State Number of projects
Louisiana 44
Iowa 19
South Dakota 19
Arkansas 18
Indiana 17
Kentucky 13
Mississippi 13
North Dakota 13
Tennessee 12
Missouri 11

Wetlands Easements – by acres enrolled:

State Acres Enrolled
Louisiana 7,259
Arkansas 4,827
North Dakota 2,812
Kentucky 2,665
South Dakota 2,328
California 2,038
Mississippi 1,894
Iowa 1,890
New Hampshire 1,773
Missouri 1,736

Agricultural Land Easements – by number of projects (includes Grasslands projects):

State Number of Projects
Vermont 28
Ohio 22
Montana 13
Kentucky 11
Colorado 10
West Virginia 10
Connecticut 9
Pennsylvania 9
Michigan 8
Texas 8

Agricultural Land Easements – by acres enrolled (includes Grasslands projects):

State Acres Enrolled
Montana 50,222
Wyoming 12,373
Texas 10,954
Colorado 6,185
California 5,372
Vermont 4,079
Ohio 3,735
Florida 2,721
Idaho 2,535
Oregon 2,172

Looking Toward the 2018 Farm Bill

Beginning with the 2018 fiscal year, funding for ACEP drops precipitously from $500 million per year to $250 million per year. At current funding levels, NRCS can fund less than half of the easement applications that it receives. At $250 million, we expect that NRCS will have to turn away between 75 and 90 percent of applicants. A top priority for ACEP in the next farm bill must be returning program funding to at least $500 million per year. 

For more information on ACEP, visit our Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs

2 responses to “Threats to Conservation Easement Funding Put Farmland and Wetlands at Risk”

  1. Dede says:

    “These numbers might seem large”. The first thought I had when I saw the 170,567 Nationwide, was ‘that’s not very much.’ For the valuable green space and Farm Lands…. OUR FARM LANDS in jeopardy we all really have to let our States and Washington know; and pray they hear the voice of reason instead of Industrial Agriculture which, with GMO’s, is in large monopoly of our corn and soy. The threat of the merger with Monsanto and Bayer, would put control of much of our food supply in foreign hands. Many, many, many more genetically modified foods are on the market and do not have to undergo any approval by the FDA as they have deemed genetically modified organisms to be no different than conventional crops.
    Many scientists, professionals, and Farmers, are begging to differ; Former FDA and USDA scientists.
    I am so thankful we have you NSAC to inform all of us, and we stand with you.