FAQ: I recently heard USDA is providing $332 million in a new program to protect and restore wetlands, grasslands and working lands. It's called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, or ACEP. Who is eligible to participate?
Answer: Making the announcement earlier this spring U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said USDA 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," says Vilsack. "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."
ACEP is consolidation of three previous programs
The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated three previous conservation easement programs into ACEP to make it easier for diverse ag landowners to fully benefit from conservation initiatives. NRCS easement programs have been a critical tool in recent years for advancing landscape-scale private lands to 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.
USDA ag land easements provide many benefits
ACEP's ag 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 land easement 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.
Easements help landowners enhance and protect
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.
May 15 is deadline for current round of funding
To learn about ACEP and other technical and financial assistance available through NRCS conservation programs, visit nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA Service Center.