Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that U.S. Department of Agriculture is making available $332 million in financial and technical assistance through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will accept ACEP applications to help productive farm and ranch lands remain in agriculture and to protect the nation's critical wetlands and grasslands, home to diverse wildlife and plant species.
"USDA helps farmers, ranchers, private forest landowners and partners to achieve their conservation goals using our technical expertise, Farm Bill funding and sound conservation planning," Vilsack said. "Conservation easements are an important tool to help these landowners and partners voluntarily provide long-term protection of our nation's farmland, ranchland, wetlands and grasslands for future generations."
The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated three previous conservation easement programs into ACEP to make it easier for diverse agricultural landowners to fully benefit from conservation initiatives. NRCS easement programs have been a critical tool in recent years for advancing landscape-scale private lands conservation. In FY 2014, NRCS used $328 million in ACEP funding to enroll an estimated 145,000 acres of farmland, grassland, and wetlands through 485 new easements.
In Florida, NRCS used ACEP funds to enroll an additional 6,700 acres in the Northern Everglades Watershed, supporting the restoration and protection of habitat for a variety of listed species, including the Wood Stork, Crested caracara, and Eastern Indigo Snake. The Nebraska Land Trust plans to use ACEP to enroll more than 1,400 acres of native grazing lands that also include grasslands and woodlands that provide critical habitat for Nebraska's bighorn sheep and elk.
ACEP's agricultural land easements not only protect the long-term viability of the nation's food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses, but they also support environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space. American Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs are eligible to partner with NRCS to purchase conservation easements. A key change under the new agricultural land easement component is the new "grasslands of special environmental significance" that will protect high-quality grasslands that are under threat of conversion to cropping, urban development and other non-grazing uses.
Wetland reserve easements allow landowners to successfully enhance and protect habitat for wildlife on their lands, reduce impacts from flooding, recharge groundwater and provide outdoor recreational and educational opportunities. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance directly to private and tribal landowners to restore, protect and enhance wetlands through the purchase of these easements, and Eligible landowners can choose to enroll in a permanent or 30-year easement; tribal landowners also have the option of enrolling in 30-year contracts.
ACEP applications may be submitted at any time to NRCS; however, applications for the current funding round must be submitted on or before May 15, 2015.
Today's announcement was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past five years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for taxpayers. Since enactment, USDA has made significant progress to implement each provision of this critical legislation, including establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships.