USDA Finalizes Conservation Easement Program Rule

Cindy ZimmermanConservation, Government, USDA

nrcsThe U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has published a final rule on the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which was created in the 2014 Farm Bill to consolidate provisions in three previous conservation easement programs.

The rule changes are designed to “make the program more flexible and responsive to the unique needs of farmers and ranchers in each region of the U.S.”, according to USDA. The final rule was published after considering public comments on the interim rule published in February 2015. USDA received nearly 1070 comments from 102 respondents on the interim final rule and evaluated the comments in the development of the final rule.

Significantly, the final rule clarifies certain program requirements for certified and non-certified entities, which will help streamline participation in the Agricultural Land Easement component of ACEP. The final rule also incorporates more fully the protection of grazing uses and related conservation values as one of the program purposes.

USDA reports that demand for ACEP funds continues to be high, with 70 percent of applications for the wetland component and 30 percent for the agricultural easement component, and an average of 25 percent of applicants are funded.

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-WRE). 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-ALE).