By Eric Hansen
Last month, NRCS finalized regulations for its new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), marking the end of 2014 Farm Bill implementation and opening up several opportunities for conservation districts to assist landowners in conservation planning.
First, some background: the 2014 Farm Bill combined the NRCS’ Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program into ACEP. To participate in the program, landowners sell the development rights on their working farmland, grassland, and wetlands. NRCS pays between one-half and three-quarters of the value of the easement, and a private partner, like a land trust, is responsible for the rest. The private partner is also charged with identifying landowners and assisting them in applying for funding.
Here’s the great news: Conservation districts have always been eligible private partners under this program. Working with local landowners, the district can identify an eligible property for an easement, draft the legal documents, and recruit funders to match the value of the easement purchase. While it isn’t easy, a number of NACD’s member districts have served successfully in these capacities.
In addition, the new ACEP regulations offer conservation districts the opportunity to help landowners using the program with conservation planning. For the first time, conservation plans – called Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) plans – are required for all farmland and grassland easements. These plans are a significant departure from the previous program and provide an exciting opportunity to assist more landowners with conservation planning.
Conservation districts can assist or lead in the creation of these plans. They can also work collaboratively with their local NRCS office, a technical service provider, or a private contractor to complete the plan on behalf of the ACEP participant.
With ACEP, conservation planning doesn’t stop with the initial easement; instead, ALE plans are living documents that must be updated over time. In some cases, partners won’t be prepared for this increased responsibility, and that’s where conservation districts can step in. Districts can be experienced resources for these partners – or the partners themselves! – that ensure the success of ACEP.