The U.S. Department of Agriculture has opened up the public comment period for proposed rules designed to help producers protect working agricultural lands and wetlands. This agency news release says USDA is now accepting comments on its interim final rule for the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), a consolidation of three previous conservation easement programs into one 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. This interim final rule takes into account recommendations from agricultural landowners and conservation stakeholders about how to better streamline and enhance conservation easement processes,” [Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack] said.
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers ACEP, a voluntary program created in the 2014 Farm bill to protect and restore critical wetlands on private and tribal lands through the wetland reserve easement component. ACEP also 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. ACEP also conserves grasslands, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland.
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. 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 143,833 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. In Georgia, NRCS used these funds to complete the Roundabout Swamp project by enrolling 270 acres of the Carolina Bay to help restore and protect the entire bay ecosystem to historic hydrology and vegetation.
USDA says the land easements offer many benefits to landowners and citizens, including protecting productive working lands being converted to non-agricultural uses. Other benefits include environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space.