The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a final rule on the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the nation’s premier conservation easement program that helps landowners protect working agricultural lands and wetlands. These rule changes will make the program more flexible and responsive to the unique needs of farmers and ranchers in each region of the U.S.
The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated three previous conservation easement programs into ACEP to make it easier for diverse agricultural landowners to fully benefit from conservation initiatives. The final rule published in the Federal Register October 18, 2016, responds to public input and makes permanent the changes that were made in the interim final rule. Significantly, the final rule clarifies certain program requirements for certified and non-certified entities, which will help streamline participation in the Agricultural Land Easement component of ACEP. The final rule also incorporates more fully the protection of grazing uses and related conservation values as one of the program purposes.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers ACEP, a voluntary program created in the 2014 Farm bill to protect and restore critical wetlands on private and tribal lands through the wetland reserve easement component (ACEP-WRE). ACEP also encourages farmers, ranchers and non-industrial private forest landowners to keep their private and tribal land in agricultural use through the agricultural land easement component (ACEP-ALE).
USDA published an interim final rule on February 27, 2015 and accepted public comments through May 28, 2015. USDA received nearly 1070 comments from 102 respondents on the interim final rule and evaluated the comments in the development of the final rule.
Topics that received the most feedback from stakeholders include: agricultural land easements deed requirements; land and landowner eligibility; planning; and ranking.
NRCS easement programs have been a critical tool in recent years for advancing landscape-scale private lands conservation. In FY 2014 and FY 2015, NRCS invested more than $600 million in ACEP funding to help landowners engage in voluntary conservation to provide long-term protection of an estimated 250,000 acres of farmland, grassland, and wetlands through more than 750 new easements. Recently, Vermont farmers used ACEP fund to restore a 500-acre wetland, creating vital habitat for several migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and amphibians.
The demand for ACEP funds continues to be high, with 70 percent of applications for the wetland component and 30 percent for the agricultural easement component. Because of this popularity, NRCS is usually able to fund about a quarter of applications.
Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion to help producers make conservation improvements, working with as many as 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect over 400 million acres nationwide, boosting soil and air quality, cleaning and conserving water and enhancing wildlife habitat. For an interactive look at USDA’s work in conservation and forestry over the course of this Administration, visit https://medium.com/usda-results.