The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) encourages people and groups wanting to protect critical wetlands, agricultural lands and grasslands to consider enrolling their property into conservation easements. This year, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) plans to invest $250 million in technical and financial assistance to help private landowners, tribes, land trusts and other groups protect these valuable lands.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) focuses on restoring and protecting wetlands as well as conserving productive agricultural lands and grasslands. Landowners are compensated for enrolling their land in easements.
“Protecting these lands preserves America’s heritage, natural resources and open space,” NRCS Acting Chief Leonard Jordan said. “Easements are also important tools for people who are trying to improve the management of their land.”
The 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP, merging together several easement programs into one. Last year alone, the program has protected nearly 300,000 acres through easements.
Wetland Reserve Easements
Through ACEP wetland reserve easements, NRCS helps landowners and tribes restore and protect wetland ecosystems. Wetlands are one of nature’s most productive ecosystems providing many ecological, societal and economic benefits.
“Seventy-five percent of the nation’s wetlands are situated on private and tribal lands,” Jordan said. “Wetlands provide many benefits, including critical habitat for a wide array of wildlife species. They also store floodwaters, clean and recharge groundwater, sequester carbon, trap sediment, and filter pollutants for clean water.”
Wetland conservation easements are either permanent or for 30 years. Eligible lands include farmed or converted wetlands that can successfully be restored, croplands or grasslands subject to flooding, and riparian areas that link protected wetland areas. As part of the easement, NRCS and the landowner work together to develop a plan for the restoration and maintenance of the wetland.
Agricultural Land Easements
Through ACEP agricultural land easements, NRCS provides funds to conservation partners to purchase conservation easements on private working lands. This program helps keep working lands working, especially in areas experiencing development pressure.
Partners include state or local agencies, non-profits and tribes. Landowners continue to own their property but voluntarily enter into a legal agreement with a cooperating entity to purchase an easement. The cooperating entity applies for matching funds from NRCS for the purchase of an easement from the landowner, permanently protecting its agricultural use and conservation values. Landowners do not apply directly to NRCS for funding under this program.
Easements are permanent. Eligible lands include privately owned cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland and forestlands.
Landowners and tribes interested in wetland reserve easements and partners interested in agricultural easements should contact their local USDA service center. Applications for ACEP are taken on a continuous basis, and they are ranked and considered for funding several times per year.