From Cape Charles to the Cumberland Gap, Virginia’s rich natural heritage enhances our quality of life and supports a strong economy. Conservation can play a vital role in preserving these resources for generations to come. In a time when our worlds have become a lot smaller, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is opening new doors for landowners and partner groups to protect the state’s open spaces.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) offered under the 2018 Farm Bill can be a great resource for restoring and maintaining the state’s wetlands and safeguarding working farms. State and local governments and non-governmental organizations with farmland protection programs can now benefit from several changes in the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component designed to help save productive crop, grass, pasture and nonindustrial forestland from conversion to non-agricultural uses. The new program agreement structure increases administrative efficiency and ALE expands the matching requirement to include acquisition expenses and stewardship costs with NO minimum cash match required.
Landowners looking to restore or maintain wetlands can contact their local NRCS office to explore options available through the improved Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) component. Conservation specialists will make a site visit to evaluate the restoration and management options, factoring in water quality benefits for enrollment under the 2018 Farm Bill.
Properties eligible for WRE include farmed wetlands that can be successfully and economically restored; former or degraded wetlands with a history of agricultural use; wetlands farmed under natural conditions; and “prior-converted” cropland converted on or before Dec. 23, 1985. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land established with trees may also be eligible for enrollment through a waiver process. NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement value for the purchase and 100 percent of the restoration costs for permanent easements. Landowners can also select a 30-year option and receive 50 to 75 percent of those costs.
“Conservation easements play a critical role in protecting working farms and forests while also helping to improve our water quality,” said Virginia State Conservationist Dr. Edwin Martinez Martinez. “We’ve protected more than 16,500 acres through 141 easements to date and new program policies should appeal to both landowners and organizations such as land trusts and purchase of development rights (PDR) programs. We look forward to exploring new collaboration opportunities in 2021.”
Applications are accepted throughout the year, but NRCS requires individuals (WRE) and entities (ALE) interested in Fiscal Year 2021 funding to submit complete applications on or before Feb. 26, 2021. We expect this to be the only signup period in FY 2021. All ACEP applicants (landowners, entities, WRE and ALE) must have farm records established with USDA’s Farm Service Agency.