USDA NRCS Conservation Easement and Restoration Funding Programs

The U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) offers financial incentives and technical support through multiple programs to public and private landowners aiming to conserve wetlands, agricultural lands, grasslands, and forests through long-term conservation easements. NRCS provides funding opportunities to acquire land for conservation in both a post-disaster and pre-disaster context, which only the latter is discussed in this entry. All NRCS programs are voluntary and allow working lands owners to be compensated for conserving their lands. These programs and easements can increase local resilience to climate change by improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and enhancing wildlife habitat. Most USDA conservation funding is allocated through the Commodity Credit Corporation and authorized in Farm Bills (about $5.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2018), while other conservation programs - offering mostly technical assistance - are funded by discretionary spending and annual appropriations (about $1 billion annually). 

Seven different USDA NRCS easement and restoration funding programs are discussed below.

 

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program 

The 2014 Farm Bill established the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which consolidated three former programs: the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. ACEP helps American Indian tribes, state and local governments, and non-governmental organizations protect working agricultural lands by limiting non-agricultural uses. ACEP has two subprograms: Agricultural Land Easements and Wetland Reserve Easements.

Agricultural Land Easements (ALE)

Through ALE, NRCS provides financial assistance to American Indian tribes, state and local governments, and non-governmental organizations to purchase easements from private landowners, to maintain agricultural and forest lands. The program both protects agricultural uses and achieves conservation goals, including to enhance the environment, wildlife habitat, and open spaces. Eligible land types include: cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland, and nonindustrial private forest land. Land is prioritized based on its agricultural land-use and conservation values, and whether parcels are contiguous. 

ALE are held either permanently or for the maximum duration allowed under applicable state laws by a land trust partner (i.e., an American Indian tribe, state and local government, or non-government land trust organization), rather than NRCS. To enroll land in an ALE, a landowner must choose a land trust partner to hold the easement, and that partner must submit an application to NRCS. Landowners of working lands may continue to use their land for agricultural purposes following the development of an easement plan that limits future non-agricultural uses. Under ALE, NRCS may contribute up to 50% of the fair market value of the easement, and in cases where grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected, NRCS may contribute up to 75%. 

Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE)

Under WRE, NRCS provides financial and technical assistance directly to private landowners and tribes to help restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and important adjacent areas. Under WRE, landowners sell all land-use rights (excluding hunting, fishing, and other uses that do not detract from the easement’s wetland value) to USDA. WRE eligible land includes farmed or converted wetlands with a minimum of 20 contiguous acres that can be successfully and cost-effectively restored (as determined in consultation with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service). Applications are prioritized based on the land’s wildlife protection potential, including the potential to enhance habitat for migratory birds. In order to enroll in WRE, NRCS enters into purchase agreements directly with eligible private landowners or Indian tribes. These agreements include the right for NRCS to develop and implement a wetland reserve restoration easement plan to restore, protect, and enhance a wetland’s functions and values.

WRE rates are based on the lowest estimate from either an appraisal, a landowner offer, or a Geographic Area Rate Cap. If the easement is located in California, this Rate Cap is determined using Market Analysis to assess the value of specific land uses in defined geographic areas. NRCS can acquire WRE through four different types of legal agreements:

  • Permanent Easements: NRCS pays 100% of the easement value for the purchase of the conservation easement in perpetuity, and between 75 to 100% of the land restoration costs.
  • 30-Year Easements: NRCS pays 50 to 75% of the easement value for the purchase of the conservation easement for a period of 30 years, and between 50 to 75% of the land restoration costs.
  • Term Easements: NRCS pays 50 to 75% of the easement value for the purchase of a term easement for the maximum duration allowed under applicable state laws, and between 50 to 75% of the land restoration costs.
  • 30-Year Contracts: NRCS offers landowners rates commensurate with 30-year easements but can only cover acres owned by Indian tribes.

In addition, NRCS pays all costs associated with recording the easement in the local land records office, including recording fees, charges for abstracts, survey and appraisal fees, and title insurance. 

 

Additional USDA Easement and Restoration Funding Programs

Healthy Forests Reserve Program

The Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) allows NRCS to enter into 10-year restoration or 30-year permanent easement agreements with landowners in order to restore, enhance, and protect forestland resources on private lands through easements and financial assistance. NRCS may also enter into a 30-year restoration agreement in cases where land is owned by an American Indian tribe. To be eligible to enroll in HFRP, applicants must demonstrate the following criteria:

  • The applicant is the owner or operator (tenant) of the land.
  • The land is privately owned or owned by Indian tribes. 
  • The project on the land will restore, enhance, or measurably increase the recovery of threatened or endangered species, improve biological diversity, or increase carbon storage.

Other opportunities from USDA to fund restoration efforts and increase local resilience include:

  • Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): CRP provides technical and financial assistance to eligible farmers and ranchers to address soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on their lands in an environmentally beneficial and financially feasible manner. 
  • Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP): CREP supports private landowners who voluntarily retire their land (for a period of 10-15 years) through annual payments to help agricultural producers protect environmentally sensitive lands and achieve benefits like preserving wildlife habitat, reduce soil erosion, and improve soil and groundwater quality. 
  • Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP): CSP provides payments to agricultural producers to conserve their working lands in accordance with a plan to attain benefits like increased crop yields, resilience to disaster events, and wildlife habitat. CSP is the nation’s largest conservation program covering more than 70 million acres of productive agricultural and forest land (as of 2019). 
  • Emergency Conservation Program (ECP): Administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency, ECP provides emergency financial and technical assistance to farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters and to implement emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought, both which may be exacerbated by climate change. Conservation problems existing prior to a natural disaster are ineligible for ECP assistance. 

 

For more information and additional resources that informed this Adaptation Clearinghouse entry, see USDA NRCS websites and James L. Cummins, Chapter 23: Private Lands Conservation Programs, in North American Wildlife Policy and Law (Bruce D. Leopold, Winifred B. Kessler, & James L. Cummins eds., 2018).

 

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