Agriculture and Conservation Land Easements
You may have heard the term conservation easements before but never really knew what they were about. A conservation easement is a legally binding agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency where the landowner retains many private property rights but limits the amount of development on the property. For example, they can allow the landowner to retain the right to grow crops on the parcel, while at the same time the landowner will relinquish the right to build additional structures on the property. A private landowner may donate or sell the land which can provide valuable tax benefits.
Every situation is unique based on the landowner’s needs and the conservation objectives. An easement can be applied to a portion of a property that is not being utilized or that the landowners want to preserve for perpetuity. It also can be applied to the entire property but designed to allow continued farming or ranching activities, hunting or other recreational uses. The majority of conservation easements are perpetual, so land use restrictions remain if the land is sold or passed on to heirs.
Conservation easement programs are developed and run by federal, state and local governmental agencies as well as non-governmental organizations. The priorities of the partner organization will influence the type and degree of land use restrictions required in the easement. For example, some organizations may focus on the protection of large natural areas, while other groups may be concerned with maintaining agricultural lands currently in production.
There are a variety of programs for conservation easements and each one has its own goal and purpose. Below is a list of some of the more common programs and resources if you are interested in learning more.
Under the USDA’s Natural Resources and Conservation Service (NRCS) there’s a few easement programs. The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) helps landowners, land trusts and others to protect, restore and enhance wetlands, grasslands and working farms and ranches. Under the ACEP the Agricultural Land Easements helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture. It aids in the protection of grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland. It provides financial assistance to eligible partners for purchasing Agricultural Land Easements protect both agriculture use and conservation values of eligible land.
The Wetland Reserve Easements provide financial assistance to private landowners to restore, protect and enhance natural wetlands. There are three types of easements available, permanent, 30-year and term. For a permanent easement, the NRCS pays 100% of the easement value for the purchase of it and will pay between 75-100% of restoration costs. For a 30-year easement, NRCS will pay 50-75% of easement value and between 50-75% of restoration costs.
If interested in either of these programs, you can get more information from your local USDA Service Center.
The Rural and Family Lands Protection Program seeks to protect valuable agricultural land and ensure sustainable agricultural practices without compromising economic viability of an agricultural operation. The funding for this program varies from year to year
As Florida becomes more developed, large tracts of forestland will become a limited resource. The Forest Legacy Program (FLP) is a U.S. Forest Service grant program whose purpose is to protect valuable forests that could be threatened from conversion to non-forest.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission runs the Landowner Assistance Program for private landowners to better manage their land for wildlife. Their biologists will provide conservation plan preparations at no cost for landowners and there is no acreage limitations. They can provide technical assistance with prescribed fire, mechanical and chemical vegetation enhancements, wildlife openings, wetlands enhancement and restoration, native tree and grasses restoration and nest box construction.
There are other programs such as Florida Forever which preserves large tracts of conservation land and sometimes new programs are generated based on legislation. Be sure to check the USDA NRCS website occasionally to see if your land might qualify for a conservation easement program.