About This Toolkit
Is your organization looking to utilize the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program-Agricultural Land Easements Program? This toolkit includes land trust success stories using the ACEP-ALE program, step-by-step guidance for your application and an acronym guide and glossary.
Disclaimer: Information provided on the Land Trust Alliance website regarding the ALE program and application is for guidance purposes only. Applicants should refer to their local NRCS State Office for up-to-date information on state-specific program and application requirements.
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The Farm Bill: largest source of federal funding for conservation
The Farm Bill authorizes a number of conservation programs that, taken in total, are the largest single federal source of funding for private land conservation in the United States. Farm Bill programs create significant opportunities for land trusts to protect high-priority farmlands, ranchlands, grasslands, wetlands and forests. The programs provide matching funds to conservation partners, so federal investments go further and are a vital resource for conserving America's farmland and ranchland.
On December 20, 2018, the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law. The legislation adopted many of the Land Trust Alliance’s highest priorities including funding the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program at $450 million/year, removing the Agriculture Land Easement plan requirement, allowing landowner donations and expenses to satisfy match requirements, granting the Secretary of Agriculture waiver authority from the Adjusted Gross Income limitation, and allowing certified entities to write their own minimum deed terms. View a comparison of the Alliance’s 2018 Farm Bill recommendations and the final bill.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program was established in the 2014 Farm Bill and brought together three easement programs: the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. ACEP provides matching funds to purchase conservation easements to protect farms, ranches and grasslands through the Agricultural Land Easement program. These easements are held by eligible entities. View the Final Rule for ACEP, released February 4, 2021.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture, helps America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners conserve the nation’s soil, water, air and other natural resources. NRCS programs are voluntary and offer science-based solutions that benefit both the landowner and the environment.Check out this brochure describing NRCS services
Under the ACEP-ALE, NRCS provides financial assistance to eligible partners for purchasing conservation easements that protect the agricultural use and conservation values of eligible land. Through the ALE program, NRCS may contribute up to 50% of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement. Where NRCS determines that grasslands of special environmental significance will be protected, NRCS may contribute up to 75% of the fair market value of the agricultural land easement.
Role of the Alliance
The Alliance is both a conduit to NRCS for our members, as well as an advocate for Farm Bill policies that help land trusts and landowners work together to access conservation easement programs. We do this through active engagement with Congress, including key committees such as the House Agricultural Committee and the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. We also lead and engage in coalitions and working groups to identify areas of improvement and refine policy recommendations as part of the annual Farm Bill cycle and subsequent rule-making process.
How ALE works
The Agricultural Land Easement Program provides technical and financial assistance to protect and conserve farmlands, ranchlands, grasslands and wetlands. A part of the conservation title of the 2018 Farm Bill, the ALE program helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture. The program also protects grazing uses and related conservation values by conserving grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland. Under the ALE component of ACEP, NRCS provides matching funds to eligible entities to acquire agricultural conservation easements on working agricultural lands. ALE keeps land available for agriculture and limits non-farm development.
Planning to apply for ACEP programs?
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program continues to be in high demand and the Alliance is advocating for more money and capacity for the programs. Share information on your proposed projects will help us paint a fulsome picture of the critical need for increased ACEP funding to ultimately get more dollars out on the ground.
Protect long-term viability of our nation's food supply.
Public benefits including environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat and protection of open space.
Eligible partners who may apply for the ALE program include American Indian tribes, state and local governments and non-governmental organizations, including land trusts, that have farmland, rangeland or grassland protection programs.
Through the Farm Bill, Congress sets minimum criteria that all land, landowners and entities must meet in order to qualify for program participation.
NRCS also requires the use of minimum deed terms as part of the conservation easement deed.
NRCS staff process and rank the applications that are submitted by entities.
Once the easement transaction has closed, the entity is responsible for stewarding the land in perpetuity according to terms set forth in the agreement.
NRCS maintains a right of enforcement throughout the life of the easement.
While funding levels increased between 2014 and 2018 Farm Bill cycles, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program continues to be in high demand. Funds are distributed to the states annually; however, too many projects don’t move forward due to lack of funds. Sometimes projects are not submitted at all as land trusts carefully assign their finite resources toward projects that are and can likely be funded.
The Land Trust Alliance is advocating for a substantial increase in conservation title funding with an emphasis on funding for ACEP to increase dollars that get out on the ground. In addition, we are highlighting the need for increased capacity for the agency to administer more projects. Providing information on your proposed projects will help us paint a fulsome picture of the critical need for increased ACEP funding to ultimately get more dollars out on the ground.Share your project information now