What You Should Know About the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

For the last 25 years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has provided easements to aid in the preservation of valuable agricultural and wetland properties. In prior years, the grants given by the NRCS functioned under the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. However, the Agricultural Act of 2014 repealed that program and replaced it with the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The provisions largely remain the same, and all easements contracted under the former title are still valid with the ACEP. However, it is likely that many ranch property sellers are more familiar with the former program name.

Under the ACEP, property owners have the opportunity to sell two types of easements — Agricultural Land Easements and Wetland Reserve Easements. These grants are provided with the aim of protecting our country’s farmland and wetlands from non-agricultural or destructive development.

This means that ranch owners with wetlands or land being actively used for agricultural purposes may be eligible for easements that pay for the continued farming, grazing, and conservation of that property.

Here are the two types of easements available under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

AGRICULTURAL LAND EASEMENTS

Agricultural Land Easements are available for farms and various types of grazing land. These easements fund the long-term viability of quality agricultural parcels, and require a comprehensive plan that outlines farm management practices ideal for the continued sustainability of the land.

Funding comes by way of both the NRCS and an eligible partner — usually a state or local agency, Indian tribe, or non-profit. In most cases, the NRCS will provide up to 50 percent of the cost of the easement to the partner, which in turn purchases the easement from the landowner. Occasionally, the NRCS will pay up to 75 percent of the easement’s cost, but this is usually restricted to grasslands that are particularly important for conservation. The vast majority of Agricultural Land Easements are permanent, allowing for guaranteed long-term preservation.

Ranch owners interested in Agricultural Land Easements are best served getting in touch with their state’s agricultural department or local land trust. These organizations can often aid in finding an eligible partner to provide funding along with the NRCS.

WETLAND RESERVE EASEMENTS

Wetland Reserve Easements are available for wetlands that have been used as farmland in the past, and still have the capability to be restored and protected. These easements are dedicated to the recuperation and conservation of vitally important wetland properties, and generally do not require extensive plans from applicants like those required for agricultural land easements. Instead, the NRCS obtains the right to utilize a restoration plan of its own design.

Wetland Reserve Easements come in two term lengths — permanent and 30-year. In the case of permanent easements, the NRCS pays the landowner directly, covering 100 percent of the easement value, as well as 75 to 100 percent of any costs needed for restoration of the wetland. In the case of 30-year easements, the NRCS covers between 50 and 75 percent of both easement value and restoration funds. The remaining cost can be provided by third party partners such as states, Indian Tribes, and NGOs.

In many cases, landowners who sell Wetland Reserve Easements are able to keep grazing rights, so long as any grazing is monitored and approached in ways that align with the long-term preservation of the wetland property.

Ranch owners interested in Wetland Reserve Easements can apply directly at a local NRCS office.

Owning a ranch affords opportunities to act as a steward of the land, enjoying and preserving valuable property. If your ranch currently or previously held agricultural operations, you may be able to sell an easement to supplement long-term sustainable practices. At Ranch Marketing Associates, we can help you with the entire easement process. From the application to the pursuit of funding to the implementation of conservation plans, our decades of experience give us the expertise to handle all of your ranching needs with confidence. Contact us today.

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