Certified for conservation

Bitter Root Land Trust and Teton Regional Land Trust are the latest accredited Land Trust Alliance members to become Natural Resource Conservation Service certified entities.

By Nikki Nesbary February 2
The sun shines on a boy and his grandpa picking pumpkins in a pumpkin patch, with a bright orange pumpkin in the foreground.

Across the country, land trusts are helping private landowners achieve their goals of conserving their land. While the goals of those individual landowners vary greatly, everyone can benefit from voluntary private land conservation. It helps ensure we have clean air and clean water, protects our food security, keeps vital habitat intact for wildlife and plants, and provides another avenue to address the impacts of a changing climate. Some land trusts work in urban areas creating community gardens, protecting green spaces and planting trees that cool air temperatures and reduce air pollution. Others focus their work in rural areas, helping families protect farms and ranches, conserving forests and securing water resources.

Farm bill conservation programs provide important resources to help those land trusts working with landowners to preserve our country’s working lands — the land that grows our food and fiber. The farm bill’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is a great tool to help landowners conserve their farm or ranch by providing funding to compensate them for placing a voluntary conservation easement on their property. Easements are a legal tool that protects the land in perpetuity while keeping ownership with that landowner. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary private lands conservation agency, administers this important program. For more than 80 years, NRCS has “helped people make investments in their operations and local communities to keep working lands working, boost rural economies, increase the competitiveness of American agriculture and improve the quality of our air, water, soil and habitat.”

The Land Trust Alliance serves as a conduit between its member land trusts and NRCS, with a focus on the Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) component of ACEP. This program provides technical and financial assistance to private and tribal landowners, land trusts and other entities to protect croplands and grasslands on working farms and ranches. It also includes a provision for exemplary land trusts to be recognized as certified entities, streamlining the ALE process for those land trusts with a strong history of helping landowners conserve farms and ranches. It also leverages NRCS resources, leading to a more efficient process that allows more farms and ranches to be protected.

“Becoming a certified entity for ACEP-ALE with NRCS has removed much of the red tape around the program and allowed us to streamline our ALE activities and let everything run a little smoother,” said Justin Merrifield, the director of conservation at the accredited Athens Land Trust in Athens, Georgia.

We're thrilled to see Bitter Root Land Trust (Montana) and Teton Regional Land Trust (Idaho/Wyoming) become the most recent Natural Resource Conservation Service certified entities.

“The Bitter Root Land Trust is honored to become a certified entity," said Kyle Barber, conservation director at the Bitter Root Land Trust. "We’re grateful for our longstanding agricultural conservation partnership with the NRCS, and deeply appreciative of the trust that they’ve bestowed upon us with this distinction. Certification cannot come at a more critical time. Development pressure is at an all-time high, yet we're fielding more conservation interest than ever before from our agricultural community. Certification will allow us to better meet that demand by increasing both the pace and volume of ALE projects we can take on, resulting in the conservation of more farm and ranchland in less time.”

They join the handful of land trusts already certified, including Land Conservancy of Adams County (Pennsylvania), Athens Land Trust (Georgia), The Nature Conservancy (National) and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (Colorado). We are also strongly encouraging more land trusts to explore this option.

"Having just recently obtained certification, TRLT is excited to put our new status in practice so we can take advantage of the flexibility offered to certified entities,” said Josh Holmes, a land protection specialist at Teton Regional Land Trust. “We currently have three ALE projects underway and one recent application submitted for fiscal year 2023 funding. Certification should give us the opportunity to refine our workflows in an effort to get ALE projects off the ground as expeditiously as possible."

To help land trusts navigate the ACEP program, the Land Trust Alliance has created a robust ACEP-ALE Action Center that provides information on how to get started with the ALE program, important program timeline details, tips for working with NRCS and guides that walk through the primary application forms. The Action Center also includes webinars featuring NRCS experts and factsheets on program components.

"Seeing the enormous development pressures facing our working farms and ranches means we need to use any tool available to help meet our landowners' conservation needs and serve our communities," said Holmes.

Land trusts interested in pursuing certification can get the conversation started with their NRCS state conservationist. Specific requirements for certification are available in the Conservation Programs Manual (Part 528, Subpart H) available in the Action Center.

"As land trusts across the country find themselves in similar situations, we’re pleased to see the NRCS continue to embrace entity certification and look forward to others joining our ranks," said Barber.

To protect family farms and ranches we need great programs like ACEP. To learn how you can join us in advocating for the programs that help conserve our working lands, visit the Alliance’s Advocate and Farm Bill pages.

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