Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

To establish an agricultural conservation easement program for the conservation of eligible land and natural resources through easements or other interests in the land.

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is comprised of two components - Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) and
Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE).

The ALE component provides funding to eligible entities to purchase conservation easements to protect the agricultural use and future viability, and related conservation values of eligible land by limiting nonagricultural uses of that land; and to protect grazing uses and related conservation values by restoring and conserving eligible land.

The WRE component provides funding to eligible landowners to purchase easements to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands on eligible land.
Related Programs10.069 Conservation Reserve Program; 10.072 Wetlands Reserve Program; 10.904 Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention; 10.913 Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program; 10.920 Grassland Reserve Program; 10.922 Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP)

Agency - Department of Agriculture

Established in 1862, the Department of Agriculture serves all Americans through anti-hunger efforts, stewardship of nearly 200 million acres of national forest and rangelands, and through product safety and conservation efforts. The USDA opens markets for American farmers and ranchers and provides food for needy people around the world.

Office - See Regional Agency Offices.

Local USDA Service Centers can be found in the blue pages of the local telephone directory under the heading USDA Service Center or through the office locator assistance on the NRCS website found at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

If no listing, contact the appropriate State NRCS office listed in the NRCS Section of Appendix IV of the Catalog.


Program Accomplishments

Accomplishments (130):
Over 250 GRP easements were acquired on over 117,000 acres.
WRP: Not Applicable.

Uses and Use Restrictions

Under the ACEP Wetland Reserve Easements (ACEP-WRE) component eligible landowners may offer farmed wetlands, prior converted wetlands, wetlands farmed under natural condition, former or degraded wetlands on lands that have been used or are currently being used for the production of food and fiber, including cropland, rangeland and forest production land, lands substantially altered by flooding, certain riparian areas, along with certain adjacent areas.

The goal of ACEP-WRE is to achieve the greatest wetlands functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat on every acre enrolled in the program.

Enrollment options include permanent easements, 30-year easements, or easements for the maximum duration allowed under State law, and, for acreage owned by Indian Tribes, 30-year contracts.

To be eligible for participation, land must be capable of being successfully and cost-effectively restored to wetlands and associated habitats.

For easement projects, landowners shall ensure the easement is superior to the rights of all others and shall agree to implement a wetland restoration plan designed to restore and maintain the easement area.

Landowners must agree to a permanent retirement of crop acreage bases, allotments, and quotas to the extent that the sum of the crop acreage bases and allotments will not exceed the remaining cropland on the farm.

Participating landowners receive financial assistance for the purchase of the easement and NRCS shall share the cost of carrying out the establishment conservation measures and practices, and the protection of wetland functions and values including necessary maintenance activities to the extent that the Secretary determines that cost-sharing is appropriate and in the public interest.

NRCS provides financial and technical assistance to the landowner or a third party as follows:

• Permanent easements: Easement duration is in perpetuity; landowners receive up to 100 percent of the cost of the easement.

NRCS provides up to 100 percent of the cost for establishment and maintenance of conservation measures and practices.
• 30-year easements or maximum duration allowed by State law: Easement duration is 30 years or maximum duration allowed by State law; landowners receive the equivalent of 75 percent of the value for a permanent easement and NRCS provides up to 75 percent of the eligible restoration costs.
• 30-year contracts: Acreage owned by Indian Tribes can be enrolled through the use of a 30-year contract which shall be equivalent in value to a 30-year easement.

NRCS provides up to 75 percent of the eligible restoration costs.
• States with an approved Exhibit E may enroll easements with reserved grazing rights.

The applicable compensation provided to the landowner for these easements will be reduced by 25%.

For both permanent and 30-year easements, ACEP-WRE pays for all the related costs associated with acquiring and recording the easement including recording fees, charges for title abstracts, surveys, appraisal fees, records searches, and title insurance associated with acquiring an easement.

These related costs are generally not paid to participants but are provided directly to the vendor performing the service.

Therefore, payments appearing on USDAspending.gov will be reflective of payments to participants and payments to vendors for services associated with restoration and management activities and administrative costs associated with acquiring and recording an easement.

The Agricultural Lands Easements (ALE) component provides funds to protect the agricultural use, including grazing, and related conservation values of eligible land through cost-share assistance to eligible entities for purchasing agricultural land easements.



The Federal share for ACEP-ALE acquisition is limited to a maximum of 50 of the appraised fair market value of the agricultural land easement.

For ACEP-ALE projects of special significance, as determined by the Chief, NRCS may waive a portion of the eligible entity cash contribution requirement, subject to an increase in the private landowner donation that is equal to the amount of the waiver, if the landowner donation is voluntary and the property is in active agricultural production.

The Chief can determine lands as Grasslands of Special Environmental Significance which authorizes a federal share of up to 75 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement.

An agricultural land easement plan is required for all ACEP-ALE easements and a Grasslands Management Plan must be included with all lands enrolled as Grasslands of Special Environmental Significance.

ACEP Agricultural Land Easements are perpetual easements or maximum duration allowed by State law.

A right of enforcement is incorporated in the conservation easement deed for the protection of the Federal investment.

A failure of title would require the eligible entity to reimburse the United States for the Federal share of the easement value.

Eligibility Requirements

Applicant Eligibility

For ACEP-ALE an eligible entity that is an Indian Tribe, State government, local government, or a nongovernmental organization which has a farmland or grassland protection program that purchases agricultural land easements for the purpose of protecting agriculture use and related conservation values, including grazing uses and related conservation values, by limiting conversion to nonagricultural uses of the land, and that has pending offers may apply for funds.

This program is available in all 50 States, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoas, the Mariana Islands, and the Trust Territories of the Pacific Islands.

Individual landowners must apply through the local agency or organization that handles the farmland or grassland protection program.



For ACEP-WRE, private landowners, including individual landowners, partnerships, associations, corporations, estates, trusts, and other business or legal entities, and Indian tribes are eligible to apply.



This program is excluded from coverage under E.O.

12372.

Beneficiary Eligibility

All landowners applying for ACEP must be in compliance with the Wetland Compliance (WC) and Highly Erodible Land (HEL) provisions of the Farm Bill and, within the exception of FY2014, meet the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) limitations in the Farm Bill.

For ACEP-ALE, applications are submitted by an eligible entity who will be the participant in the program.

For ACEP-WRE, only private landowners, partnerships, associations, corporations, estates, trusts, other business or legal entities and, Indian tribes may submit applications for easements.

Credentials/Documentation

ACEP-WRE - Eligible applicants must be in compliance with the highly erodible land and wetland conservation provisions in 7 CFR part 12 and, except for FY 2014, the Adjusted Gross Income provisions in 7 CFR part 1400. They must be the landowner of the eligible land being offered for participation. For easement applications, the applicant must have owned the land for the 24 month period prior to the time the land is determined eligible for enrollment. Under limited circumstances a waiver of the 24 month ownership period may be granted from the Chief of NRCS.

ACEP-ALE - Eligible entities must provide documents indicating: 1) they have the relevant experience and resources to administer an ALE easement; 2) commitment to long-term conservation of agricultural lands, ranchlands or grassland for grazing or related conservation purposes through legal devices, such as right-to-farm laws, agricultural districts, zoning, or land use planning; 3) use of voluntary approaches to protect farmland from conversion to non-agricultural uses; and 4) their capability to acquire, manage, and enforce conservation easements. NRCS evaluates an entities capacity to acquire, manage and enforce easements; it s staffing and the ability of an entity to provide matching funds before entering into a cooperative agreement. If the eligible entity is a nongovernmental organization, they must be: 1) organized for, and at all times since, the formation of the organization and has been operated principally for one or more of the conservation purposes specified in clause (i), (ii), (iii), or (iv) of section 170(h)(4)(A) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986; 2) an organization described in section 501(c)(3) of that Code that is exempt from taxation under 501(a) of that Code; and 3) described (i) In section 509(a)(1) and (2) of that Code, or (ii) Is described in section 509(a)(3) of that Code and is controlled by an organization described in section 509(a)(2) of that Code. This program is excluded from coverage under OMB Circular No. A-87.

Aplication and Award Process

Preapplication Coordination

All ACEP applicants must submit required documentation as evidence of eligibility.

The land itself is evaluated and ranked in accordance with eligibility requirements and ranking criteria developed by NRCS.

A programmatic environmental analysis is completed.

Individual project selection may be made primarily at the State level by responsible NRCS officials.

An environmental impact assessment is required for this program.

This program is excluded from coverage under E.O.

12372.

Application Procedures

OMB Circular No. A-102 applies to this program. This program is excluded from coverage under OMB Circular No. A-110. ACEP-ALE - Applications are accepted on a continuous basis by the NRCS State Offices. Applicants are required to provide general information about the location of the project, contact information for the applicant, eligibility and ownership documentation, and designate the type of enrollment desired by the applicant (i.e. permanent easement, 30-year easement or maximum allowed by State law). Applications and supporting information requirements for the application can be obtained from the State Offices of the (NRCS) and USDA NRCS home page. See www.nrcs.usda.gov. Select Programs from the menu.

ACEP-WRE - Applications are accepted on a continuous basis by the NRCS State or local Field Offices. Applicants are required to provide general information about the location of the project, contact information for the applicant, eligibility and ownership documentation, and designate the type of enrollment desired by the applicant.

Award Procedures

NRCS will rank parcels individually and award funding to the highest-ranked parcels based on ranking criteria established by NRCS in consultation with the State Technical Committee. The ranking factors are developed based on national and state criteria and priorities. NRCS conducts preliminary due diligence activities on the projects tentatively selected for funding and applicants are provided an offer of enrollment. Projects are enrolled in ACEP through agreements signed by NRCS and the eligible entity under ACEP-ALE or the landowner under ACEP-WRE.

Deadlines

Contact the headquarters or regional office, as appropriate, for application deadlines.

Authorization

Food Security Act of 1985, Title XII, Part Subtitle D, Section 1237, Public Law 99-198.

Range of Approval/Disapproval Time

Within a Federal fiscal year (October 1 - September 30), based on funding availability, States establish a single or multiple application batching periods for consideration of current year funding. Eligible entity or landowner applications may remain on sign-up list for subsequent funding consideration.

Appeals

Applicants or participants may appeal certain determinations regarding this program in accordance with 7 CFR Part 614 and Parts 11 and 780.

Renewals

The land offered may be re-offered in a future sign-up unless land or landowner is ineligible.

Assistance Considerations

Formula and Matching Requirements

Statutory formulas are not applicable to this program.
Matching Requirements: ACEP-ALE - NRCS may provide up to 50 percent of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. An eligible entity will share in the cost of purchasing an agricultural land easement in an amount that is at least equivalent to the Federal share. An eligible entity may include as part of its share a charitable donation or qualified conservation contribution (as defined by section 170(h) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986) from the landowner if the eligible entity contributes its own cash resources in an amount that is at least 50 percent of the amount of the Federal share. NRCS may authorize a waiver to increase the federal share to 75 percent for grasslands of special environmental significance with respective adjustments to the eligible entity contribution. NRCS may also authorize a waiver of the eligible entity cash contribution requirement for projects of special significance. Each eligible entity is required to fund its own administrative costs in acquiring easements, such as appraisals, surveys, title searches, and costs incurred in managing and enforcing the easements.

ACEP-WRE - Matching Requirements: Lump sum payments for easements valued at $500,000 or less and the Secretary may provide payments in not more than 10 annual payments. Easements valued at more than $500,000 the Secretary may provide payments in at least 5, but no more than 10 annual payments, except that, if the Secretary determines it would further the purposes of the program, the Secretary may make a lump-sum payment for such an easement. Payments of up to 100 percent of the easement acquisition cost and cost of implementing the Wetland Restoration Plan will be paid for a permanent easement with up to 75 percent of permanent easement amounts being paid for 30-year easements, less-than perpetual easements limited by State law, and 30-year contracts. NRCS pays up to 100 percent of all related acquisition costs for all enrollment types.
MOE requirements are not applicable to this program.

Length and Time Phasing of Assistance

ACEP-ALE - Easements must be closed within 18 months of the end of the fiscal year in which the cooperative agreement is signed. Federal funds must be disbursed within 2 to 5 years after signing the cooperative agreement. Method of awarding/releasing assistance: lump sum. Easement duration is either perpetual, 30-year, or the maximum duration permitted by State law. Financial assistance for easement acquisition is provided at closing.

ACEP-WRE - Cash easement payments will be made in a lump sum amount, or in annual installments beginning at closing. Payments for implementation of restoration practices will be made when a specific practice has been implemented by either the landowner or third party and certified by NRCS. See the following for information on how assistance is awarded/released: Cash easement payments will be made in a lump sum amount, or in annual installments beginning at closing.

Post Assistance Requirements

Reports

ACEP-ALE - Annual monitoring reports on the status of each easements acquired will be prepared by the eligible entity and submitted to the NRCS State Office.

Fund disbursement reports are prepared by NRCS.

ACEP-WRE - Annual monitoring reports on the status of each easement acquired will be prepared by NRCS in accordance with NRCS monitoring policy.

Cash reports are not applicable.

Progress reports are not applicable.

Expenditure reports are not applicable.

Performance monitoring is not applicable.

Audits

In accordance with the provisions of OMB Circular No. A-133 (Revised, June 27, 2003), "Audits of States, Local Governments, and Non-Profit Organizations," nonfederal entities that expend financial assistance of $500,000 or more in Federal awards will have a single or a program-specific audit conducted for that year. Nonfederal entities that expend less than $500,000 a year in Federal awards are exempt from Federal audit requirements for that year, except as noted in Circular No. A-133. An audit may be made in accordance with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Circular No. A-102 Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements to State and local governments and other related Circulars.

Recipients are subject to audit by the Office of Inspector General, USDA.

Records

ACEP-WRE - Records will be maintained in the county NRCS office, State NRCS office and Federal Record Centers for the length of the agreement. The easement (deed restriction) and applicable documents will be filed in the local land records office for the duration of the easement. Agreements are filed with the Agency.

Financial Information

Account Identification

12-1004-0-1-302.

Obigations

(Salaries) FY 13 $0; FY 14 est $115,046,000; and FY 15 est $128,506,000. (Cooperative Agreements) FY 13 $0; FY 14 est $262,931,000; and FY 15 est $296,494,000

Range and Average of Financial Assistance

FRPP: $2,700 to $1,000,000 per landowner. Average: $97,000.
GRP: The 5 year average estimated cost per acre for easement acquisition was approximately $400, ranging from $65 per acre to over $30,000 per acre. The average estimated cost per acre for rental contracts was $134 per acre over the life of the rental contract. Program Accomplishments (130):
Over 250 GRP easements were acquired on over 117,000 acres.
WRP: Not Applicable.

Regulations, Guidelines, and Literature

FRPP: 7 CFR § 1491; Interim Final Rule, Federal Register, Volume 74, Number 126, July 2, 2009. Final Rule, Federal Register, January 24, 2011.
WRP: 7 CFR § 1467; Interim Final Rule, Federal Register, Volume 74, Number 11, January 16, 2009. Interim Final Rule, Amended, Federal Register, Volume 76, Number 126, July 2, 2009.

The program is announced through news media and in letters to agricultural landowners in the county.

Information Contacts

Regional or Local Office

See Regional Agency Offices. Local USDA Service Centers can be found in the blue pages of the local telephone directory under the heading USDA Service Center or through the office locator assistance on the NRCS website found at www.nrcs.usda.gov. If no listing, contact the appropriate State NRCS office listed in the NRCS Section of Appendix IV of the Catalog.

Headquarters Office

Kim Berns 14th and Independence Ave., SW.
Room 6817-S
P.O. Box 2890, Washington, District of Columbia 20013 Email: kim.berns@wdc.usda.gov Phone: 202-720-1854 Fax: (202) 720-9689

Criteria for Selecting Proposals

ACEP-ALE - Criteria used for selecting applications include: Percent of prime, unique, and other important farmland in the parcel to be protected; Percent of cropland, rangeland, grassland, historic grassland, pastureland, or nonindustrial private forest land in the parcel to be protected; Ratio of the total acres of land in the parcel to be protected to average farm size in the county;
Decrease in the percentage of acreage of farm and ranch land in the county in which the parcel is located; Percent population growth and density in the county; Existence of a farm or ranch succession plan or similar plan established to address farm viability; Proximity of the parcel to other protected land and to other agricultural operations and agricultural infrastructure; Maximizing the protection of contiguous acres devoted to agricultural use; Zoning; Eligible entity"s performance; Geographic regions help achieve national, State, and regional conservation goals and objectives; Diversity of natural resources to be protected; Score in the land evaluation and site assessment system or equivalent measure for grassland enrollments; the parcels support of grazing operations; protection of grassland, land that contains forbs, and shrubland at the greatest risk from the threat of conversion to uses other than grazing; and plant and animal biodiversity.

ACEP-WRE - All offers are screened at both the local and State level to determine the acceptability of the application. Offers will be evaluated based on the environmental benefits and government expenditures on restoration and easement purchase and the requirement that wetland and wildlife functions and values benefits be maximized. Criteria for selecting applications include: The conservation benefits of obtaining an easement or other interest in the land; The cost effectiveness of each easement so as to maximize the environmental benefits per dollar expended; Whether the landowner or another person is offering to contribute financially to leverage Federal funds; The extent to which the purposes of this part would be achieved on the land; The productivity of the land; The on-farm and off-farm environmental threats if the land is used for the production of agricultural commodities; Obtaining permanent easements over shorter term easements; and Acquiring easements based on the value of the easement for protecting and enhancing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, in consultation with USFWS. NRCS, in consultation with the State Technical Committee, may place higher priority on certain land types or geographic regions of the State where restoration of wetlands may better achieve State and regional goals and objectives. Priority may also be given to land that is currently enrolled in CRP in a contract that is set to expire within one year from the date of application and is farmed wetland and adjoining land that has the highest wetland functions and values and is likely to return to production after the land leaves CRP.



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