Conservation programs of the past tended to force people into one program or another. However, under the new farm bill the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) “creates flexibility to put own ideas together and then seek assistance and funding to accomplish those goals,” according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Monday Vilsack announced that $328 million in conservation funding is being invested to help landowners protect and restore key farmlands, grasslands and wetlands across the nation. The USDA initiative will benefit wildlife and promote outdoor recreation and related sectors of the economy.
This year’s sign-up attracted over 1,450 applications seeking up to $546 million of requests and covering 345,000 acres. In the end, USDA identify 380 projects nationwide were selected to protect and restore 32,000 acres of prime farmland, 45,000 acres of grasslands and 52,000 acres of wetlands.
"Conservation easements help farmers and ranchers protect valuable agricultural lands from development, restore lands that are best suited for grazing, and return wetlands to their natural conditions," Vilsack said. "These easements are making a dramatic and positive impact for our food supply, rural communities and species habitat."
In addition to protecting cropland and critical habitats, conservation strengthens outdoor recreation and helps boost the economy. According to the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, annual United States conservation spending totals $38.8 billion, but it produces $93.2 billion of economic output throughout the economy - 2.4 times more than what is put in. This output takes the form of more than 660,500 jobs, $41.6 billion in income and a $59.7 billion contribution to national Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.
Through ACEP, private or tribal landowners and eligible conservation partners working with landowners can request assistance from USDA to protect and enhance agricultural land through an agricultural or wetland easement.
These easements deliver many long-term benefits. For example, this year's projects will:
- Improve water quality and wetland storage capacity in the California Bay Delta region;
- Reduce flooding along the Mississippi and Red rivers;
- Provide and protect habitat for threatened, endangered and at-risk species including sage grouse, bog turtles, Florida panthers, Louisiana black bear, and whooping cranes to recover populations and reduce regulatory burdens; and
- Protect prime agricultural land under high risk of development in urban areas to help secure the nation's food supply and jobs in the agricultural sector.
ACEP consolidates three former Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) easement programs – Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Grasslands Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program – into two components. One component protects farmlands and grasslands, and the other protects and restores agricultural wetlands.
"The 2014 Farm Bill streamlined USDA's major easement programs into one, putting the important benefits of protecting farmlands, grasslands and wetlands all under one roof to make it as easy as possible for landowners to participate," Vilsack said.
Operating in a constrained resource environment requires the government to be as creative and innovative as possible. “The conservation easement approach provides a good example of our efforts to try and do so,” Vilsack said.