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To addressing historic loss of agricultural land to protecting vital wetlands, easements have been a crucial tool in conserving these important land uses in North Carolina. 

RALEIGH, N.C., –The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced on March 15 that $138 million of financial assistance will be invested in 138 easements across the United States. North Carolina received over $11.5 million dollars that will help fund four applications for conservation easements in the state. These easements fall under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).

The ACEP helps landowners, land trusts, and other entities protect, restore, and enhance wetlands or protect working farms and ranches through conservation easements in North Carolina and across the U.S. It protects the agricultural viability and related conservation values of eligible land by limiting nonagricultural uses which negatively affect agricultural uses and conservation values, protect grazing uses and related conservation values by restoring or conserving eligible grazing land, and protecting and restoring and enhancing wetlands on eligible land.

NRCS offered Inflation Reduction Act funding in both of ACEP’s components: Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) and Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE). For Inflation Reduction Act funding, NRCS prioritized land that will most reduce, capture, avoid or sequester carbon dioxide, methane or nitrous oxide emissions.  

ACEP has two components:
•    Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) help private and tribal landowners, land trusts, and other entities such as state and local governments protect croplands and grasslands on working farms and ranches by limiting non-agricultural uses of the land through conservation easements.
•    Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE) help private and tribal landowners protect, restore and enhance wetlands which have been previously degraded due to agricultural uses.

Additionally, through ACEP, USDA offers the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP), a voluntary program through which NRCS enters into agreements with eligible partners to leverage resources to carry out high priority wetland protection, restoration, and enhancement and to improve wildlife habitat.

Why are Easements Important

According to a study by the American Farmland Trust, North Carolina could lose roughly 20% of its 8 million acres of farmland to development happening across the state by 2040. This puts them second, only to Texas in farmland lost to development. Agriculture remains a vital economic staple to North Carolina which recently posted over $100 billion in economic impacts for the state. Easements limit development use and keeps farms in production.

The Coastal Review reported that saltwater is creeping farther inland into the soil and surface waters of North Carolina’s coastal plain. This “saltwater intrusion,” as scientists call it, has an ability to transform freshwater landscapes long before they’re permanently drowned by the rising sea. Wetland restoration helps farms in North Carolina back away from rising water levels in places like the Pamlico Sound while providing natural protection from sea-level rise and salty high tides and storm surges.

“Easements are an excellent tool that keeps land in production and restores important ecosystems for the state. It’s encouraging to see just how serious our landowners are in natural resource conservation,” said Brian Loadholt, N.C. NRCS Easement Coordinator.

Easements at Work in the State

In fiscal year (FY) 2023, over another $11 million was invested in agriculture easements. This protected over 1 thousand acres of farmland and wetlands in North Carolina. Historically N.C.-NRCS has helped restore around 1,000 acres of wetland each year with WRP/WRE, with a cost of approximately $3 to $4 million. Over the past 20 years 45,000 to 50,000 acres of wetlands have been restored, with a majority of that being pocosin land. The easement section is continuing to process received applications and over 20 projects are in the acquisition process.

To get started, please visit your local USDA Service Center. To find the nearest center visit USDA Service Center Locator.

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