Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, or ACEP, was authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. It combined three earlier voluntary easement programs – the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

ACEP is managed by the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, or NRCS. It is a partnership among NRCS and state and local governments, Native American tribes and non-governmental organizations like land trusts.

ACEP is broken into two types of easements, Agricultural Land Easements and Wetlands Reserve Easements.

Agricultural Land Easements, or ALE, are designed to preserve agricultural land for farming and conservation activities, instead of their being developed into urban areas or other uses. NRCS provides financial assistance to eligible entities like land trusts, as well as American Indian tribes, state and local governments and other nonprofits, for purchasing the easement to protect the agricultural and conservation uses.

ALE restricts non-agricultural uses of farmland and grasslands but allows the easement holder to lease the rights for undeveloped recreational uses, such as hiking, bird watching, hunting and fishing.

Wetland Reserve Easements, or WRE, are more similar to traditional conservation easements. NRCS buys the easement rights from private and tribal landowners to protect and enhance wetlands, as well as to restore previously farmed wetlands. These easements have many environmental benefits, including increased habitat for wildlife, reduced agricultural pollutants in water, decreased greenhouse gas emissions and increased resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

Wetland easements are either for 30 years or the period allowed under state laws, or they are permanent, which means the wetlands cannot be farmed again for the duration of the contract. Permanent easements have the greatest environmental and climate benefits, since the wetlands can never be farmed again.

The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized ACEP at higher funding levels and included a few reforms, including adding a new “buy-protect-sell” provision to ALE, which allows eligible entities to buy land before acquiring an ALE, agree to hold an ALE on the land, and then transfer the land within a specific period to a farmer or rancher.

About the data

We received the ACEP data in the summer of 2023, through a Freedom of Information Act request submitted to the Department of Agriculture. The database contains financial assistance payments by state, for fiscal years 2017 through 2022, for ALE and WRE. The database has financial assistance payments split up into payments for ALE and payments for WRE, separately. For more information about the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, see this NRCS website.


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