September 9, 2014
On Monday, September 8, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $328 million in funding for 380 conservation easement projects as part of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The projects will protect and restore 129,000 acres of farmland, grasslands, and wetlands across all 50 states.
The 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP by combining three former programs – the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and Farm and Ranch land Program (FRPP). ACEP is divided 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.
Wetlands and grasslands are some of our most threatened national land resources across the country due to cropland expansion pressure. Similarly, productive farmland is vulnerable to conversion for housing and commercial development. Thanks to 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.
ACEP Funding By the Numbers
The fiscal year (FY) 2014 application period for ACEP closed on June 6 of this year. NRCS received 1,450 ACEP applications, requesting a total of $546 million in funding. From the application pool, NRCS is funding 53 percent of agricultural land easement applications and 51 percent of wetland easement proposals.
NSAC is very please to report that 68 percent of all funding, or $223 million, will go toward wetland easement projects, while 32 percent ($105 million) will go toward agricultural land easement projects. NSAC has long recommended that at least 60 percent of ACEP funding be dedicated to wetland conservation and restoration projects.
Even at 68 percent, however, $223 million is a dramatic reduction in funding for wetland projects, relative to the $410 million that the 2008 Farm Bill provided each year on average for WRP. Of the 129,000 acres being protected and restored through ACEP in FY 2014, agricultural land easements account for 60 percent (77,000 acres) while wetland easement account for 40 percent (52,000 acres). By comparison, under the 2008 Farm Bill, NRCS enrolled an average of over 200,000 acres in wetland easements each year. While the 2014 Farm Bill consolidated the easement programs and provided greater permanency to funding for wetlands and grasslands, it also dramatically reduced funding available on an annual basis for wetland easements.
Of the 77,000 acres in agricultural land easements, prime farmland accounts for 32,000 acres while grassland accounts for 45,000 acres.
All states received ACEP funding, but some received more than others. Florida emerged as the top recipient, receiving over $31 million in funding. California and Arkansas rounded out the top three with $22 million and $21 million, respectively. Louisiana, Iowa, Texas, and Kentucky also received over $10 million in ACEP funding each.
You can visit the NRCS website to view the breakdown of ACEP funding by state; however, the list does not display the division between agricultural land easements and wetland easements. Moreover, we do not yet know how much ACEP funding will go toward “wetland reserve enhancement” projects or projects that target “grasslands of special environmental significance,” both of which are targeted initiatives within the ACEP statue. We will update this post with a full list when we have that data.
More about ACEP
There are two easement options within the wetland easements component of ACEP – 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.
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 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. 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.
For more information about ACEP, eligibility, and how to apply, see the ACEP Fact Sheet.