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June 2014 Featured Article

Featured Article
Newly Revised Reserve Programs by USDA Means More Savings for Municipalities
Triad Associates

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently consolidated three of its programs: Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program and Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program. Renamed the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), this new financial and technical assistance is offered through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). ACEP now consists of Agricultural Easements and Wetland Reserve Easements, each requiring separate applications with different eligibilities. Although the focus is on assisting farmers in maintaining their land as agricultural use, few understand that this program also gives municipalities necessary resources for creating new recreational opportunities as well as preserving open space and protecting environmentally sensitive lands.

When land is protected by agricultural easements the municipality can benefit in a multitude of ways, from historic preservation, wildlife habitat, open space protection, maintenance of higher environmental quality and even agritourism opportunities at little to no additional cost. When land is preserved by a Wetlands Reserve Easement, the municipality gains habitat protection for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species, improved water quality through filtering sediments and chemicals, reduced flooding, recharged groundwater, protected biological diversity and opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities, also at no additional cost.

The Land Trust Alliance, a national conservation organization based in Washington, D.C., defines a conservation easement as a “legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. It allows landowners to continue to own and use their land, and they can also sell it or pass it on to heirs.” Costs associated with conservation easements typically include purchase of the easement as well as recording the easement in the local land records office, associated recording fees, charges for abstracts, survey and appraisal fees and title insurance.

The NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to eligible partners for purchase costs associated with Agricultural and Wetlands easements as well as any necessary restoration expenses. Eligible partners include Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs.

Under the Agricultural Land component, NRCS may contribute up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. Where NRCS determines that grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected, NRCS may contribute up to 75 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement.

For the Wetlands Reserve Easement, NRCS may enroll eligible land into several types of easements ranging from permanent to “30-year” to “Term”. With permanent easements, NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement values for its purchase as well as 75-100 percent of the restoration costs. For the 30-year easement, NRCS pays between 50 and 75 percent of the easement purchase as well as the restoration costs. Term easements are based on the maximum duration allowed under State laws, and for this type, NRCS also pays 50-75 percent of restoration costs.

Eligibility for agricultural easements include cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland and nonindustrial private forest land. According to NRCS they will “prioritize applications that protect agricultural uses and related conservation values of the land and those that maximize the protection of contiguous acres devoted to agricultural use”.

Eligibility for wetland reserve easements include farmed or converted wetland deemed able to be “successfully and cost-effectively restored.” In addition, priority favors lands that offer the greatest potential for protecting and enhancing habitat for wildlife such as migratory birds.

There are no deadlines for applying. Agricultural Easement proposals may be submitted to NRCS from land owners or their partners; however, Wetlands Reserve Easement applications may be submitted to the USDA Service Center. These services add a tremendous value at a minimal cost to municipalities. In many cases, these opportunities are missed because local officials are simply unaware of their availability.

Published June 2014.

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