2014 Farm Bill Programs-Easements

A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement that restricts development and uses of a landowner’s property in order to protect certain functions and resource values. Voluntary easements are important for preserving agricultural landscapes, helping producers keep their working lands working, and for protecting vulnerable wetland habitats. 

The 2014 Farm Bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands, grasslands, and wetlands and their related benefits. ACEP replaces the former Farm and Ranch Lands Protection, Grassland Reserve, and Wetlands Reserve Programs and streamlines the acquisition process for conservation easements. ACEP is comprised of two components: The agricultural land easement (ALE) and wetland reserve easement (WRE).

Agricultural Land Easements

Through ACEP-Agricultural Land Easements (ALE), USDA typically provides conservation partners with 50 percent of the cost of an easement protecting a farm or ranch threatened by development or sodbusting. The 2014 Farm Bill created two important provisions under ACEP-ALE. First, it created an ALE Grasslands of Special Environmental Significance (GSS) designation intended to continue the grassland protection previously implemented through the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP). Under GSS, the USDA cost-share can increase from 50 percent to up to 75 percent. The primary difference between ALE-GSS and GRP is that all ALE deeds must be held by eligible entities whereas NRCS was authorized to hold GRP deeds. Second, it created ALE “projects of special significance,” where USDA can reduce an eligible entity’s required cash contribution with a corresponding increase in landowner donation, provided the donation is voluntary and the land is in active agricultural production. Click here for details about ACEP-ALE.

Wetland Reserve Easements

The new ACEP - Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE) option will continue to provide technical and financial assistance to private landowners and tribes to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands. Under WRE, landowners sell most of their land use rights (e.g., cropping, grazing, haying, timber harvest, subdivision, etc.) to USDA, which holds the easement, while retaining hunting, fishing, and quiet recreational use rights. In addition, they cannot place structures on the easement or otherwise impact wetland functions and values. Grazing and timber management, along with other uses, can be authorized by NRCS on a case-by-case basis if it is deemed compatible with the easement’s wetland values. WRE also includes a Reserved Grazing Rights provision that allows landowners, under certain circumstances, to enroll without selling their grazing rights to those lands. This option has been successfully utilized since 2008 in portions of the Intermountain West. Click here for more details about ACEP-WRE.

Healthy Forests Reserve Program

The Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) specifically targets projects to protect or improve habitat for state or federally listed threatened and endangered species. Additional consideration for enrollment can be given to eligible land that will improve biodiversity and increase carbon sequestration. Safe Harbor provisions of the Endangered Species Act or Candidate Conservation Agreements are sought for participants enrolled in the HFRP who agree, for a specified period, to restore or improve their land for threatened or endangered species habitat. In exchange, they avoid future regulatory restrictions on the use of that land. Click here for more details about the Healthy Forests Reserve Program.