USDA announces new round of conservation funding

ACEP offers $332 million to protect and restore agricultural working lands, grasslands in wetlands in 2015.

Over 600,000 producers are engaged in some form of conservation practices and the latest farm bill continues to help support efforts to protect working lands as well as those for non-agricultural uses with the availability of $332 million in financial and technical assistance through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

ACEP established in the last farm bill consolidates three former easement programs – the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP). ACEP is composed of an Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component and a Wetlands Reserve Easement (WRE) component.

Jason Weller, chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), explained ACEP is an important tool in the broader conservation toolbox which funds easements for long-term and permanent protection. It also protects working lands and protects if from development and keeps habitats and grasslands intact.

Wetlands and grasslands are some of the most threatened national land resources across the country due to pressure to convert to cropland. Similarly, productive farmland is vulnerable to conversion for housing and commercial development. Through 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 permanent and long-term easements.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack noted permanent easements are funded at 100% of the value of the easement and it also provides 75-100% of restoration costs.

In Florida, NRCS used ACEP funds to enroll an additional 6,700 acres in the Northern Everglades Watershed, supporting the restoration and protection of habitat for a variety of listed species, including the Wood Stork, Crested caracara, and Eastern Indigo Snake. The Nebraska Land Trust plans to use ACEP to enroll more than 1,400 acres of native grazing lands that also include grasslands and woodlands that provide critical habitat for Nebraska's bighorn sheep and elk.

Weller said funds have also been effective at protecting sage grouse habitat. In California a 1,000 acre easement in the San Joaquin Valley river basin helped restore habitat and the brush rabbit, which was thought to be extinct, flourished.

“Given the opportunity for nature to respond, private lands can make a difference,” Weller said.

Funding available

NRCS easement programs have been a critical tool in recent years for advancing landscape-scale private lands conservation, USDA said. In FY 2014, NRCS used $328 million in ACEP funding to enroll an estimated 145,000 acres of farmland, grassland, and wetlands through 485 new easements.

Of the 145,000 total acres, nearly 90,000 acres were enrolled through 190 agricultural land easements, while 55,000 acres were enrolled through 295 wetland easements.

Of total ACEP funding for 2014, 68% ($223 million) went to wetland easement projects, while 32% ($105 million) went to agricultural land easement projects. In the past, roughly 75% of NRCS easement funding went to wetland easements, with the remaining 25% going to open space working space farmland and ranch protection.

NRCS intends to maintain this breakdown under ACEP. Weller estimated that roughly 67-70% of funding will go toward wetland easements in FY 2015, while the acreage breakdown between wetland and agricultural land easements will be close to 50:50.

The program so far has been popular, and Vilsack expects similar success next year.

ACEP applications may be submitted at any time to NRCS; however, applications for the current funding round must be submitted on or before May 15, 2015. Weller said many states have already been working with landowners and estates on developing applications throughout the fall and winter.
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