The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) encourages people and groups wanting to protect critical wetlands, agricultural lands and grasslands to consider enrolling their property into conservation easements. This year, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) plans to invest $250 million in technical and financial assistance to help private landowners, tribes, land trusts, and other groups protect these valuable lands.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) focuses on restoring and protecting wetlands as well as conserving productive agricultural lands and grasslands. Landowners are compensated for enrolling their land in easements.
“Protecting these lands preserves Nevada’s heritage, natural resources and open space,” said Gary Roeder, NRCS acting state conservationist in Nevada. “Easements are also important tools for people who are trying to improve the management of their land.”
Ranch owner Ray Hendrix, of Smith Creek Ranch in Nevada, understands the importance of conserving the land for sustainable agricultural production, sage grouse and other sagebrush dependent wildlife to thrive. The 230,000 acre ranch includes many historic buildings and is important habitat for sage grouse and Lahontan cutthroat trout.
The newest effort at Smith Creek Ranch continues the tradition of environmental stewardship, with The Nature Conservancy purchasing a conservation easement on approximately 2,785 acres of the ranch to support sustainable ranching and habitat conservation. Smith Creek Ranch is in the heart of Nevada’s sagebrush sea—a habitat that is increasingly threatened by development, invasive species and severe fires. Smith Creek Reservoir on the ranch provides habitat for irrigation water and migrating waterfowl, while meadows supply hay and provide lush habitat for sage grouse and other wildlife.
Hendrix sees the easement as a smart business decision.
“Protecting our natural resources is key,” Hendrix said. “If we don’t, we won’t be successful.”
Applications for ACEP are taken on a continuous basis, and they are ranked and considered for funding several times per year. The next deadline is Jan. 12, 2018 for ACEP Wetland Reserve Easement applications and March 16, 2018 for ACEP Agricultural Land Easements.
The 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP, merging together several easement programs into one. In the last year, easements have protected 7,320 acres in the state and nearly 300,000 acres nationwide.
Wetland Reserve Easements
Through ACEP wetland reserve easements, NRCS helps landowners and tribes restore and protect wetland ecosystems. Wetlands are one of nature’s most productive ecosystems providing many ecological, societal and economic benefits.
“Seventy-five percent of the nation’s wetlands are situated on private and tribal lands,” Roeder said. “Wetlands provide many benefits, including critical habitat for a wide array of wildlife species. They also store floodwaters, clean and recharge groundwater, sequester carbon, trap sediment, and filter pollutants for clean water.”
Wetland conservation easements are either permanent or for 30 years. Eligible lands include farmed or converted wetlands that can successfully be restored, croplands or grasslands subject to flooding, and riparian areas that link protected wetland areas. As part of the easement, NRCS and the landowner work together to develop a plan for the restoration and maintenance of the wetland.
Agricultural Land Easements
Through ACEP agricultural land easements, NRCS provides funds to conservation partners to purchase conservation easements on private working lands. This program helps keep working lands working, especially in areas experiencing development pressure.
Partners include state or local agencies, non-profits and tribes. Landowners continue to own their property but voluntarily enter into a legal agreement with a cooperating entity to purchase an easement. The cooperating entity applies for matching funds from NRCS for the purchase of an easement from the landowner, permanently protecting its agricultural use and conservation values. Landowners do not apply directly to NRCS for funding under this program.
Easements are permanent. Eligible lands include privately owned cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland, and forestlands.
Landowners and tribes interested in wetland reserve easements and partners interested in agricultural easements should contact their local USDA service center.