(USDA/NRCS) — USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) seeks public comments on its interim rule for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). ACEP is USDA’s premier conservation easement program, helping landowners protect working agricultural lands and wetlands. The rule – now available on the Federal Register – takes effect on publication and includes changes to the program prescribed by the 2018 Farm Bill.
“Through easements, agricultural landowners are protecting agricultural lands from development, restoring grazing lands and returning wetlands to their natural conditions,” NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr said. “The new changes to ACEP under the 2018 Farm Bill make it stronger and more effective and will result in even better protection of our nation’s farmlands, grasslands and wetlands.”
NRCS is investing more than $300 million in conservation easements for fiscal 2020. NRCS state offices will announce signup periods for ACEP in the coming weeks.
Changes to ACEP for agricultural land easements include:
- Authorizing assistance to partners who pursue “Buy-Protect-Sell” transactions.
- Requiring a conservation plan for highly erodible land that will be protected by an agricultural land easement.
- Increasing flexibility for partners to meet cost-share matching requirements.
Changes to ACEP for wetland reserve easements include:
- Identifying water quality as a program purpose for enrollment of wetland reserve easements.
- Expanding wetland types eligible for restoration and management under wetland reserve easements
“Conservation easements have a tremendous footprint in the U.S. with nearly 5 million acres already enrolled. That’s 58,000 square miles,” Lohr said. “This is a great testament to NRCS’s and landowner’s commitment to conservation.”
NRCS invites comments on this interim rule through March 6 on the Federal Register. Electronic comments must be submitted through regulations.gov under Docket ID NRCS-2019-0006. All written comments received will be publicly available on regulations.gov, too.
NRCS will evaluate public comments to determine whether additional changes are needed. The agency plans on publishing a final rule following public comment review.
Applying for ACEP
ACEP aids landowners and eligible entities with conserving, restoring and protecting wetlands, productive agricultural lands and grasslands. NRCS accepts ACEP applications year-round, but applications are ranked and funded by enrollment periods that are set locally.