The U.S. Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments 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. 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.
ACEP's agricultural land easement component offers many benefits to landowners and citizens. The 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. NRCS helps restore, protect and enhance enrolled wetlands to provide habitat for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species; improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals; reduce damage from flooding; recharge groundwater; protect biological diversity and provide opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities. Under the wetland reserve easement component, 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 that are available only for lands owned by American Indian tribes.
The official notice of the proposed ACEP interim final rule can be found in the Federal Register. Electronic comments during the 60-day comment period must be submitted through regulations.gov. Comments also can be hand carried or mailed to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. NRCS-2014-0011, Regulatory and Agency Policy Team, Strategic Planning and Accountability, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Building 1-1112D, Beltsville, MD 20705.