The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is seeking public comments on its interim rule for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). According to a press release, ACEP is USDA’s premier conservation easement program, helping landowners protect working agricultural lands and wetlands. The rule – now available on the Federal Register – takes effect on publication and includes changes to the program prescribed by the 2018 Farm Bill.

“The changes made to ACEP will strengthen the program and provide better protection to our nation’s farmlands, grasslands, and wetlands.” Grover DePriest, NRCS acting state conservationist in Missouri said.

NRCS is investing more than $300 million in conservation easements for fiscal 2020. NRCS state offices will announce signup periods for ACEP in the coming weeks.

Changes to ACEP for agricultural land easements include:

Authorizing assistance to partners who pursue “Buy-Protect-Sell” transactions. Requiring a conservation plan for highly erodible land that will be protected by an agricultural land easement. Increasing flexibility for partners to meet cost-share matching requirements.

Changes to ACEP for wetland reserve easements include:

Identifying water quality as a program purpose for enrollment of wetland reserve easements. Expanding wetland types eligible for restoration and management under wetland reserve easements.

“Conservation easements have a tremendous footprint in the U.S. with nearly 5 million acres already enrolled. That’s 58,000 square miles,” NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr said. “This is a great testament to NRCS’s and landowner’s commitment to conservation.”

NRCS invites comments on this interim rule through March 6 on the Federal Register. Electronic comments must be submitted through regulations.gov under Docket ID NRCS-2019-0006. All written comments received will be publicly available on regulations.gov, too.

NRCS will evaluate public comments to determine whether additional changes are needed. The agency plans on publishing a final rule following public comment review.

ACEP aids landowners and eligible entities with conserving, restoring and protecting wetlands, productive agricultural lands and grasslands. NRCS accepts ACEP applications year-round, but applications are ranked and funded by enrollment periods that are set locally.

For more information on how to sign up for ACEP, visit your state website at nrcs.usda.gov or contact your local NRCS field office.