USDA on Thursday opened the public comment period on its interim final rule for the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, designed to help producers protect working agricultural lands and wetlands.
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.
"Since 2009, USDA has worked with producers and private landowners to enroll a record number of acres in conservation programs," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
The interim final rule takes into account recommendations from agricultural landowners and conservation stakeholders about how to better streamline and enhance conservation easement processes, Vilsack said.
USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service administers ACEP, which encourages farmers, ranchers and non-industrial private forest landowners to keep their private and tribal land in agricultural use through the agricultural land easement component.
The Ag Conservation Easement Program also conserves grasslands, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland, USDA said.
Under ACEP's agricultural land component, tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs are eligible to partner with USDA to purchase conservation easements.
In FY 2014, NRCS used $328 million in ACEP funding to enroll an estimated 143,833 acres of farmland, grassland, and wetlands through 485 new easements.
USDA says Agricultural Conservation Easement Program's easements protect the long-term viability of the nation's food supply by preventing conversion of productive working lands to non-agricultural uses. Other benefits include environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space.
Under ACEP's wetland component, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance directly to private and tribal landowners to restore, protect and enhance wetlands through the purchase of wetland reserve easements.
The official notice of the proposed ACEP interim final rule can be found in the Federal Register. Visit the ACEP page or Farm Bill Program Rules page for more information on the ACEP statutory changes.