Last year, with the passage of a new farm bill, three conservation programs overseen by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service were consolidated under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). On March 31, USDA was announced that $332 million would be provided for 2015 ACEP projects.
“Conservation is critically important to the future of farming and rural America,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a conference call. “Last year, we were pleased to announce the farm bill and new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. … Since then, we’ve seen 144,000 acres enrolled in a variety of conservation easements – 485 to be exact. These easements are protecting major environmental locations like the Everglades, where we’ve invested $18 million.
“There are a variety of options under the new easement program: permanent easements, 30-year easements, term easements and 30-year contracts. All are designed to provide protection and assistance to preserve precious land.”
The applications for 2015 ACEP easements can be submitted at any time before the May 15 deadline.
“What’s great about these easements is you can also have long-term and permanent protection of vulnerable habitats such as wetlands,” said Jason Weller, NRCS chief. “It’s also really critical that there are also working land easements. You can protect open space, protect the integrity of agricultural landscapes, prevent it from (going to) subdivision and development to keep the working land intact.
“You can also keep working grasslands intact, as well. The easements are a vital strategy across the United States, but particularly in the West where we’re looking at critical species such as the sage grouse and other vulnerable species.”
Overall, said Weller, about 3.4 million acres are now under the NRCS long-term and permanent easement portfolio. “We’re excited to see what type of excellent projects will come in this year with the additional $332 million. We expect we’ll be able to get well over 100,000 acres of additional conservation easement protection.”
Questions and answers
How is the $332 million of funding going to be broken down?
“One of the good things about the new program is the flexibility it creates,” said Vilsack. “In the past, we’d dedicate specific sums to each program. Now, we provide states the opportunity to help us determine how best to use these resources. There may be a greater demand for wetland, a greater demand for other types of land from state to state. So, at this point, it may be difficult to determine how this will break down.”
Historically, the split in finding was roughly 75 percent to Wetland Reserve Program easements. About 25 percent went to open space, working lands easements.
“Under the new combined program, we’re trying to maintain a roughly equivalent allocation,” said Weller. “So, we estimate 57 to 70 percent of the funding will go to wetland reserve easement acquisitions. About 30 to 33 percent will go to the croplands/grasslands/working lands component of the easement program.”
Asked about easement success stories, Weller pointed to several.
“We got a farm bill signed in February of 2014 and got an easement program standing up and fully rolled out in three or four months. In the end, we had $328 million invested in easements. … At the local level, you can see the impact these investments make.
“Where you make the investments and restore the lands, the resources come back. In the Central Valley of California … there’s a 1,000-acre easement we put in along the flood plain. It’s not just benefiting migratory birds and waterfowl but other species. In this case, it’s the Riparian Brush Rabbit, which we thought was extinct. We found for the first time in almost a decade, this little rabbit, this little critter that everyone thought extinct, was living on an NRCS easement along the river. It’s doing very well and thriving and is an example where, if you make the investment, nature will respond.”
To learn about ACEP and other technical and financial assistance available through NRCS conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA Service Center.