In a statement submitted March 2 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the NGFA recommended several changes to the agency’s interim rule for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).
Through ACEP, the NRCS pays conservation easement holders that purchase conservation easements from landowners. NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the market value of the land. This is in addition to federal tax incentives for conservation easement sellers. Under a conservation easement, the terms and conditions, such as which agricultural uses will be allowed, are decided by the conservation- easement holder and landowner.
In its statement, NGFA cautioned against making it too easy for current landowners to mis-utilize ACEP to permanently restrict land use. “Taking away the decision-making ability of future landowners to engage in sustainable crop or livestock production may have severe negative consequences,” NGFA said. “Landowners and agricultural producers should have the freedom to respond to market signals by changing land use from crop production to grass or trees, and vice versa.”
In addition, NGFA said the recent policy change to no longer require conservation easement holders to contribute their own cash resources toward the easement purchase could result in abusing ACEP and distorting long-term land use, by encouraging entities to buy land, restrict land use, collect ACEP funds and tax incentives, and then sell the land for a profit. “The loser when ACEP is gamed to restrict land use will be U.S. agriculture.”
Further, NGFA urged NRCS to maintain and make available publicly, state- and county-level data relating to land covered by conservation easements. Specifically, NGFA urged NRCS to collect and publish data on the number of acres enrolled under conservation easements, the soil classification of the land, and the use of the land before and after implementation of the terms of the easement.
“Transparency on the use of federal funds for ACEP is essential, given the permanent nature of the conservation easements and the large amount of land (nearly 5 million acres) that has been placed in conservation easements by way of ACEP.”
NGFA’s statement noted that policies that reduce the amount of cultivated U.S. cropland will accelerate the existing long-term trend of declining cropland and will undermine U.S. agriculture’s future competitiveness relative to its major agricultural export competitors. In its statement, NGFA included the “Trend for U.S. Cultivated Cropland” chart displaying the downward trend in the amount of U.S.-cultivated cropland, and urged NRCS not to allow the use of ACEP on conservation easements that prohibit crop production.
NGFA concluded its statement by reminding NRCS that land-use flexibility is important for U.S. farmers and agribusinesses’ competitiveness in domestic and global markets, as well as their positive contribution to global food security.