On Thursday, May 1, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the Department is now accepting applications for FY 2014 financial assistance through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Applications must be submitted by the individual state deadline or June 6, 2014, whichever is earlier.
The 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP by combining the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and Farm and Ranch land Program (FRPP). The Farm Bill divides ACEP into two components: a wetland easement component, which largely mirrors the former WRP, and an agricultural land easement component, which is intended to retain the purposes and functionality of GRP and FRPP.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will make $366 million available for conservation easements through ACEP this year, though it has not yet determined how much of the $366 million will go toward wetland easements versus agricultural land easements. The 2014 Farm Bill leaves that determination to the Department rather than including it in statute.
While $366 million is far, far less than what the 2008 Farm Bill provided WRP, GRP, and FRPP annually, the new easement program now has a permanent funding baseline. This means that, should Congress fail to pass a new farm bill five years from now, wetland and grassland conservation efforts will not once again be stranded without funding to enroll new acres. NSAC helped champion the successful effort to secure this change to permanent funding in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Agricultural Land Easements
Under the agricultural land component, funds are provided to eligible entities to purchase easements to protect working farms and ranches and to conserve grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrub land.
NRCS may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. This rises to 75 percent in cases where NRCS determines that grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected.
According to the NRCS release, “application priority will be given to proposals preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses and maximizing the protection of land devoted to growing the nation’s food supply.” The 2014 Farm Bill also authorizes USDA to prioritize applications that include grassland acres that will expire from the Conservation Reserve Program within one year.