The 2014 Farm Bill was a big win for the land trust community, providing billions of dollars for conservation, including $1 billion over ten years for conservation easements. Farm Bill programs create major opportunities for land trusts to protect high-priority farm and ranch lands, grasslands, wetlands and forests. The programs provide matching funds to conservation partners, so federal investments go further to protect America’s productive land.
Do you have a project that matches Farm Bill priorities? Here’s a breakdown of where to find funding. You can find more information through the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which runs these programs.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP): This program provides matching funds that land trusts can use to purchase conservation easements on agricultural land, grasslands, and wetlands.
The amount of funding varies by the type of land. For agricultural lands, NRCS may pay up to 50% of the fair market value of an easement. For environmentally significant grasslands, that figure goes as high as 75%. For wetlands, NRCS may pay for 100% of a permanent easement, as well as 75% of restoration costs. NRCS may also contribute to the costs of non-permanent easements on wetlands.
A couple years ago, Bill and Lynn Cook entered into a conservation easement agreement with the California Rangeland Trust that ensures the 2,235-acre W.F. Cook Cattle Company Ranch will forever remain the same. Thanks to ACEP funding, the ranch will now be a major open space buffer while conserving the agricultural use, soils, character, value and utility of the land. The conservation easement allows the ongoing agricultural productivity of the property while limiting nonagricultural use.
In another policy win for land trusts, the 2014 Farm Bill also offers more flexibility for the matching contribution. Now, if the landowner donates part of the value of the easement, that amount can count toward the match. For particularly significant projects, the Secretary of Agriculture can ‘waive’ the requirement that land trusts provide a quarter of the funds to purchase an easement. Landowners can donate the remaining amount, using the value of the donated development rights as a match.
ACEP consists of the Agricultural Lands Easement (ALE) Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program. For its part, ALE was formed by consolidating the former Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and Grassland Reserve Program.
Healthy Forest Reserve: This program helps to protect and restore forest lands. To qualify, conservation projects must benefit endangered species, improve biodiversity, or enhance carbon sequestration. This program funds restoration activities as well as permanent or 30-year easements.
Forest Legacy Program: Authorized by the USDA Forest Service and funded by the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the program protects private forest land by purchasing conservation easements or land in fee from voluntary landowners.
Community Forests: Authorized in the Farm Bill, The Community Forest Program is a grant program that authorizes the Forest Service to provide financial assistance to local governments, Tribal governments, and qualified nonprofit entities to establish community forests that provide continuing and accessible community benefits.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program: This program enlists partner groups, such as land trusts, state agencies, tribes, and other related groups to coordinate conservation activities on a national or state scale. A land trust can acquire conservation easements using RCPP funds. Also, the program engages landowners and agricultural producers in conservation activities that improve water, soil, wildlife habitat, or other natural resources. NRCS provides cost-share funding while its partners coordinate activities in their area. This new program consolidates former regional programs, like the Chesapeake Bay Initiative, into one entity – funded with money from other conservation programs. The Secretary also designates eight ‘critical conservation areas’ that receive priority funding.
The Gallatin Valley Land Trust secured RCPP funding to restore the headwaters of the Missouri River which form the watershed for the majority of agricultural production in Montana. RCPP funding will bolster their pre-existing funds with local conservation programs for purchasing land easements and establishing stewardship programs. Thanks to RCPP, their watershed will be secured and their agriculture will flourish for years to come.
Three Farm Bill programs offer assistance for farmers and ranchers to conserve resources by improving land management practices. Land trusts can help farmers and ranchers realize their conservation goals by informing them about these options and/or helping them apply for funding to carry out projects.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program: This program provides financial and technical assistance for activities that benefit air quality, water quality, soil and water conservation, and wildlife habitat.
Conservation Stewardship Program: This program helps farmers and ranchers to maintain, improve, and expand activities that benefit natural resources (including soil, water, air, and wildlife habitat) or conserve energy. Payments are based on performance.
Agricultural Management Assistance Program: This program, available in 16 states, helps producers to manage risk and conserve resources, through projects such as water management, irrigation, windbreaks, diversified production, erosion control, integrated pest management or organic farming.