WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Arlen Lancaster announced Friday that USDA is seeking public comments on changes to the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, designed to help farmers and ranchers preserve their agricultural land.

USDA released an interim final rule that contains the changes on Friday, Jan. 16. The rule will be published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment through March 17.

"This program ensures that valuable, productive land is protected," Lancaster said. "The changes in the interim final rule are designed to maintain this primary purpose. Land use devoted to agriculture contributes to environmental quality, historical and archaeological resources and scenic beauty."

The FRPP interim final rule can be viewed at the USDA-NRCS Web site; at the official government regulation Web site; and at the Federal Register.

This interim final rule will incorporate statutory changes and establish the program's proposed policy for the life of the 2008 Farm Bill. Public comments on this rule will be used to develop the final rule for FRPP.

USDA-NRCS administers FRPP, a voluntary conservation program that protects productive agricultural land. It provides funding to purchase conservation easements to limit conversion of farm and ranch lands to non-agricultural uses. USDA-NRCS establishes cooperative agreements with non-governmental organizations, states, federally recognized tribes and local governments to support their efforts to protect land in agricultural use. USDA-NRCS provides up to 50 percent of the appraised fair market value of the conservation easement. Since 1996, FRPP has enrolled 600,000 acres on 300 farms and ranches in 49 states.

To participate in the program, landowners agree to limit the use of their land for non-agricultural purposes and to develop and implement a conservation plan. The farm or ranch land must contain productive soils or historic archaeological sites, or support a state or local program policy. It must have a pending offer from a non-governmental organization, state, tribe or local farmland protection program; be privately owned; large enough to sustain agricultural production; accessible to markets for what the land produces; and surrounded by parcels of land that can support long-term agricultural production.

The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, or 2008 Farm Bill, contains several significant changes to FRPP. The program's purpose changed from protecting topsoil to protecting agricultural use. USDA will provide funding to purchase easements; however, it will no longer purchase easements on its own. Churches, universities and hospitals are now eligible as cooperating entities to purchase easements. Forestland and land that supports the policies of a state or local farm and ranch land protection program are eligible for FRPP.

The new farm bill established "certified entities" as entities that have demonstrated excellent performance in administering FRPP. Because of that performance, "certified entities" are eligible to sign cooperative agreements that can obligate funding for five or more years without re-negotiation. USDA-NRCS will establish a process to certify these entities. Non-certified cooperating entities can sign agreements that can obligate funding for three to five years.

The cash contribution from a cooperative entity must be at least 25 percent of the purchase price of a conservation easement.