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Conservation easement

The Auch Angus Ranch north of Corvallis is under consideration for a conservation easement using funding from the 2006 Open Space bond. It reportedly has some of the most productive soils in Ravalli County; the easement would prohibit development on 84 acres, allowing it to remain as an agricultural parcel. 

Photo provided by the Bitter Root Land Trust

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is encouraging people and groups wanting to protect critical wetlands, agricultural lands and grasslands to consider enrolling their property into conservation easements.

This year, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) plans to invest $250 million in technical and financial assistance to help private landowners, tribes, land trusts, and other groups protect these valuable lands.

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) focuses on restoring and protecting wetlands as well as conserving productive agricultural lands and grasslands. Landowners are compensated for enrolling their land in easements.

“Protecting these lands preserves Montana’s heritage, natural resources and open space,” said Tom Hedt, NRCS acting state conservationist in Montana. “Easements are also important tools for people who are trying to improve the management of their land.”

Applications for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program are taken on a continuous basis, and they are ranked and considered for funding several times per year. The next deadline is March 1, 2018.

The 2014 Farm Bill created ACEP, merging together several easement programs into one. In the past year, easements have protected nearly 102,000 acres in Montana, which is one-third of the national total.

Through ACEP wetland reserve easements, NRCS helps landowners and tribes restore and protect wetland ecosystems. Wetlands are one of nature’s most productive ecosystems providing many ecological, societal and economic benefits.

“Seventy-five percent of the nation's wetlands are situated on private and tribal lands,” Hedt said. “Wetlands provide many benefits, including critical habitat for a wide array of wildlife species. They also store floodwaters, clean and recharge groundwater, sequester carbon, trap sediment, and filter pollutants for clean water.”

Wetland conservation easements are either permanent or for 30 years. Eligible lands include farmed or converted wetlands that can successfully be restored, croplands or grasslands subject to flooding, and riparian areas that link protected wetland areas. As part of the easement, NRCS and the landowner work together to develop a plan for the restoration and maintenance of the wetland.

Through ACEP agricultural land easements, NRCS provides funds to conservation partners to purchase conservation easements on private working lands. This program helps keep working lands working, especially in areas experiencing development pressure.

In Montana, agricultural land easements are also a large part of the NRCS strategy for addressing threats to sage grouse, especially in areas at high risk of cropland conversion or exurban development. Montana NRCS, landowners, and land trust partners collaborated in 2017 to bring an unprecedented number of applications to the table. NRCS has received approval on nearly 92,000 acres of easements in sage-grouse habitat totaling around $22 million.

Partners include state or local agencies, non-profits and tribes. Landowners continue to own their property but voluntarily enter into a legal agreement with a cooperating entity to purchase an easement. The cooperating entity applies for matching funds from NRCS for the purchase of an easement from the landowner, permanently protecting its agricultural use and conservation values. Landowners do not apply directly to NRCS for funding under this program.

Easements are permanent. Eligible lands include privately owned cropland, rangeland, grassland, pastureland, and forestlands.

Landowners and tribes interested in wetland reserve easements and partners interested in agricultural easements should contact the Ravalli County USDA service center at 363-1444.


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