Agricultural conservation easements referred to as PACE programs stalled in 2010, according to the American Farmland Trust Farmland Information Center. The PACE programs being referenced are those funded by state and local governments and do not take into account private agricultural conservation easements.

Both the private conservation easements and the state and local PACE programs compensate farmers and ranchers for permanently protecting their land with conservation easements that limit future development and keep farmland available for agriculture.

According to the The Farmland Information Center’s survey of PACE programs, the totals show that during 2010, state programs acquired 4 percent more easements to reach a total of 12,415 easements nationwide. Protected acres rose eight percent to 2,185,996 acres.

“But Colorado accounted for 59 percent of the year’s increase in acres. The state more than doubled its annual acres protected from 43,723 acres in 2009 to 95,303 acres in 2010. When Colorado is taken out of the mix, the remaining state-level programs protected 21 percent less land than in the prior year. Colorado completed several large acreage projects,” the information center announced.

“Another bright spot was New Jersey, where in August, Governor Chris Christie signed legislation allocating $90.6 million to preserve farmland in the Garden State. New Jersey’s State Agriculture Development Committee administers the farmland preservation programs, which include state-initiated farmland protection projects and grants to counties, municipalities and nonprofits,” the report further explains.

It is interesting that when it comes to PACE programs, three eastern states have between 15 percent to 30 percent of their farmland in conservation easement. New Jersey is one of those states. The other two are Delaware and Maryland. 

The information gathered shows at least 16 active state programs that either reduced spending or continued not to fund farmland protection projects in the face of tight state budgets. All states together spent $185,204,380, or 21 percent less than 2009, and 45 percent less than the amount in 2008.

This slow-down or lack of activity should not be the only judge of conservation easements. It is not fully explained how state’s without PACE programs are counted. An article in the November issue of AgProgressional magazine discussed the private conservation easement activity in Kansas. There is no state program for Kansas, but several private land trust conservation easement organizations exist.

“Cuts in state-level farmland protection funding are particularly ill-timed because PACE activity had started to gain momentum, encouraged by federal funding. From 2001 to 2011, there was a 32 percent increase in the number of active state-level programs and a 127 percent spike in independent local programs. Easements acquired by state programs rose 153 percent from 4,898 to 12,415 while protected acres skyrocketed by 171 percent. Early adopters have realized significant accomplishments; protecting meaningful proportions of their agricultural land base,” the AFT information center announced.

Continued funding is needed to keep development and urban sprawl out of agricultural areas, AFT contends. PACE programs do not stop development but ensure that there will be a supply of agricultural land in the future.

AFT further contends, “Food production, and, therefore, long-term food security, depends on the availability of agricultural land. Saving agricultural land as the world’s population grows from seven billion to 9.4 billion in 2050 will help ensure that the global demand for food can be met. Well-managed agricultural land also provides food and cover for wildlife and protects watersheds. It helps control flooding, absorbs and filters wastewater, provides groundwater recharge, and has the potential to generate a source of renewable energy. Working lands support local economies through sales of farm goods, job creation, support services and businesses, and by creating secondary markets such as food processing and distribution.”

One federal program provided $31 million more in 2010 than 2009 for conservation easements. The federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) has provided matching funds to entities to buy easements on agricultural land. Since its inception in 1996 through 2010, the FRPP has allocated nearly $888 million for easement acquisitions and supporting technical assistance. Of the 25 states that acquired easements through PACE, 22 (88 percent) have used FRPP funds. In addition to assisting state PACE programs, the FRPP has worked with local PACE entities and non-governmental organizations in 49 states, AFT noted.

“We hope that Congress will think long and hard about cuts to conservation because conservation spending is vital to our national security. Conservation dollars spent here won’t be undone by future development. A working lands easement program keeps land available for production and invests in local economies,” said Katherine “Kitty” Smith, Ph.D., AFT vice president of programs and chief economist.