The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced an effort to streamline its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), updating its process around land appraisals and land surveys while certifying organizations that help the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with the process of rolling land into easements.
The ACEP aids landowners in conserving, restoring, and protecting wetlands as well as at-risk grasslands.
After feedback from producers, landowners, and conservation partners, the key program changes include:
• A raised national review threshold for Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) appraisals from $1 million to $3 million, which the USDA says will help use staff resources more efficiently and speed up implementation. Appraisals are conducted to ensure appropriate use of federal funds given to conservation partners for purchasing land from a farmer or rancher. The raised threshold also is a result of increased land values.
The NRCS changes to the ACEP “will help us more efficiently and effectively work with producers and partners to protect lands in conservation easements,” said NRCS Chief Terry Cosby. “We want our program to be more responsive to our customer needs so that ACEP continues to be a valuable and effective conservation tool that provides long-term protection of our nation’s farmland and wetland resources.”
• Land surveys will now occur earlier in the acquisition timeline. Surveys are important for locating land boundaries – a necessity for purchasing and managing an easement. In addition, the NRCS is expanding partnerships to assist with getting land surveys and is simplifying the review process in order to speed up enrollment.
• The NRCS wants to expand the number of eligible entities and organizations certified for ALEs with a certification initiative, which would notify eligible communities or organizations of administrative flexibilities. This would give more independence to eligible entities as they purchased easements using ALE funding.
The cluster of changes is what the USDA called a “first step” in streamlining ACEP and NRCS conservation programs to increase utility and convenience under the Inflation Reduction Act, which funded ACEP $1.4 billion over five years.