On Feb. 26, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it is accepting public comments until April 28 on an interim final rule for the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The program is designed to help producers protect working agricultural lands and wetlands. The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated three previous conservation easement programs into one to make it easier for diverse agricultural landowners to benefit fully from conservation initiatives.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers ACEP, a voluntary program created in the 2014 Farm bill to protect and restore critical wetlands on private and tribal lands through the wetland reserve easement component.

Under ACEP’s agricultural land component, tribes, state and local governments, and non-governmental organizations that have farmland or grassland protection programs are eligible to partner with USDA to purchase conservation easements. NRCS easement programs have been a critical tool in recent years for advancing landscape-scale private lands conservation. In fiscal year 2014, NRCS used $328 million in ACEP funding to enroll an estimated 58,207 ha (143,833 ac) of farmland, grassland, and wetlands through 485 new easements.

Also on Feb. 26, USDA announced that NRCS would invest an additional $84 million through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program to help disaster recovery efforts through more than 150 projects in 13 states. “This program helps communities carry out much needed recovery projects to address the damage to watersheds that is caused by floods, hurricanes, and other natural disasters,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “USDA is committed to helping repair and rebuild the rural communities that anchor rural America and are a key part of our nation’s economy.”