Washington, D.C. — Today a coalition of conservation, sportsmen and forest management organizations and companies applauded the introduction of the Forest Conservation Easement Program (FCEP) Act of 2023 in the U.S. Senate. The bipartisan legislation will fill a critical gap and help keep private forestland intact and sustainably managed for timber, allowing the lands to continue providing numerous benefits to rural and urban communities.
The legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Senator Roger Wicker, R-Miss., with the goal of including the legislation in the 2023 Farm Bill with mandatory funding.
The legislation would prevent the conversion of forests into non-forest areas by authorizing funding to purchase development rights from willing private landowners. This would be achieved by placing a voluntary conservation easement on the privately owned land. FCEP is an expansion of and successor to the current Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). As a successor program, FCEP has the potential to offer new resources to meet various needs, which is especially critical at this time. One significant feature of this expansion is that it would provide funding for conservation easements to be acquired by non-federal and non-state entities, similar to a longstanding program for farmland and ranchland. This fills a vital funding gap for forestland.
“The United States loses approximately half a million acres of privately owned forest land to development each year, at the expense of clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, timber supplies and more,” said Andrew Bowman, president and CEO of the Land Trust Alliance. “Land trusts are uniquely positioned to help private forest owners protect and manage their lands while also educating the public about the benefits of forest conservation to the environment and economy. We’re grateful for the efforts of Senators Gillibrand and Wicker in introducing this bill that will allow land trusts to work with the federal government to ensure that private forests remain forests.”
“Every year we lose more and more intact working forests to fragmentation and conversion to development. Since 2007 we have lost more than 7.5 million acres,” said Larry Selzer, president and CEO of The Conservation Fund. “The Conservation Fund is dedicated to addressing the threat of forestland conversion and applauds U.S. Senators Gillibrand and Wicker for stepping up to provide an important, missing conservation tool to preserve working forests. We look forward to working with our leaders in Congress to get this pragmatic and bipartisan solution included in the 2023 Farm Bill with mandatory funding.”
“Conservation easement programs are an important tool that should be available to all private forest owners,” said Dave Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners. “Combined with healthy markets for forest products, conservation easement programs help privately owned forests provide a full range of benefits to rural communities. These include both economic prosperity and maintaining healthy populations of common and at-risk species and the habitats they need. Smart legislation, like the Forest Conservation Easement Program Act of 2023, helps America’s private working forests continue to provide clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and good paying jobs in rural communities.”
“From filtering drinking water, providing habitat for wildlife, buffering flood waters and sequestering carbon, to providing much-needed forest products and jobs, forests are an essential part of the fabric of America,” said Camille Green, conservation policy coordinator for Wildlife Mississippi. “The Forest Conservation Easement Program will help preserve forests for future generations to enjoy.”
“Forest conservation has been a priority of the Boone and Crockett Club since Theodore Roosevelt helped establish the Timberland Reserve Bill in 1891, which began creating forests to be held in the public trust,” said James L. Cummins, president of the Boone and Crockett Club. “We have great, voluntary, easement-based conservation programs for almost every habitat type except forests. With the many pressures we have today on our nation’s forests and the many opportunities we have to utilize them to solve many of society’s problems, the Forest Conservation Easement Program is the logical next tool we need to advance forest conservation for the next generation.”
“Voluntary conservation agreements are proven tools for conserving forests,” said Jeff Crane, president & CEO of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “We applaud Senators Gillibrand and Wicker for championing the Forest Conservation Easement Program Act of 2023 to provide additional incentives for landowners to conserve working forests and thereby support habitat for fish and wildlife and our outdoor sporting traditions that depend on healthy habitats to provide quality experiences for sportsmen and women.”
At its core, FCEP introduces two components, both of which seek to expand conservation easement options on private and tribal forestland while supporting sustainable forest management and production:
Through forest land easements, NRCS will provide funding for eligible entities, such as land trusts, to purchase working forest conservation easements, filling a void among federal programs. Currently, no existing forest easement program provides funding for land trusts to acquire easements.
Through forest reserve easements, NRCS will purchase forest conservation easements directly from forest landowners while additionally providing financial assistance for the management and restoration of the lands to benefit at-risk species. This aspect of FCEP serves as the successor to the HFRP.
Conservation easements allow private forest landowners to keep forests intact now and for future generations, ensuring the land remains privately owned and working. This provides stable forest cover, advances conservation goals and perpetuates timber supply for forest products. Private working forests in the United States support 2.5 million jobs, filter nearly 30 percent of the nation’s drinking water, provide habitat for 60 percent of at-risk species and serve as a powerful carbon sink.
According to the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, approximately 500,000 acres of U.S. forestland are converted to other land uses every year, highlighting the urgency of conserving and maintaining privately owned forested areas. While this forestland loss has been offset by the reforestation of other lands, the quality of forests replacing those that have been lost is not equal. Moreover, forests are facing greater threats than ever before, including wildfire, habitat loss, pests, diseases and invasive species.
The existing NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is crucial for preserving working farmland and ranchland, but most forestland is ineligible. Additionally, the existing forest easement programs target state or federal conservation priorities, through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program (FLP) or HFRP, respectively. These are highly successful and important programs, but FCEP is needed to fill a gap by providing funding for the two different easement options: forest land easements and forest reserve easements, with this funding being in addition to funding for ACEP and FLP.
House companion legislation, the FCEP Act of 2023 (H.R. 3424), was introduced on May 17 by U.S. Representative Trent Kelly, R-Miss., and U.S. Representative Annie Kuster, D-N.H.
For more information, visit www.foresteasement.org.
About the Land Trust Alliance
Founded in 1982, the Land Trust Alliance is a national land conservation organization that works to save the places people need and love by strengthening land conservation across America. The Alliance represents approximately 950-member land trusts supported by more than 250,000 volunteers and 6.3 million members nationwide. The Alliance is based in Washington, D.C., and operates several regional offices.