National Easement Assessment Project

This project helped develop strategies to monitor, adaptively manage, and ensure compliance of Natural Resources Conservation Service easements.
Strategic outcomes now help guide ecological monitoring, adaptive management, and compliance verification on NRCS easements, and help validate the investment of public funds on private lands for natural resource conservation.

About the Project

Conservation easement programs have provided an important tool for restoring and protecting a variety of ecosystem services and societal values on privately owned land. Easement programs, such as those administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), have tremendous potential to impact wildlife habitat and populations on private land. Land trusts, nature organizations, and federal, state, and local agencies increasingly are turning to easements as the tool of choice for protecting wetlands, forests, endangered species, grasslands, farmlands, ranches, and scenic and historic areas. With an increasing number of conservation easements each year, challenges have arisen over how to best execute long-term stewardship on easement lands. In particular, site monitoring is essential to ensure that program objectives are being met. Data acquired during monitoring can provide information for making decisions to adaptively manage sites. 

Despite the allocation of significant funds by USDA to implement conservation easement programs, few standards exist to monitor the ecological attributes of sites after easements have been established. Per program provisions, NRCS is required to monitor easement properties annually to ensure that they are being maintained (i.e., compliant with compatible land use) and that management is achieving program objectives.

Although ecological monitoring of easements has occurred in some states, no mechanism exists to efficiently interpret these data and make adaptive management decisions. Further, compliance has been historically monitored by site visits, which requires considerable resources if sites are monitored annually. Remote sensing and GIS technologies offer a potential cost-efficient alternative to site visits for detecting changes associated with incompatible land use. In order to make a substantiated assessment of which strategies should be used to monitor sites and compliance, costs needed to be considered and weighed with corresponding benefits. To accomplish this task, the USDA NRCS in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture established the NRCS National Easement Assessment Project.

  • Matthew Gray, Project Leader
  • Katherine Edwards, Project Supervisor
  • Heath Hagy, Wetland Ecosystems Specialist
  • Douglas Osborne, Terrestrial Ecosystems Specialist
  • William Sutton, Bioassessment Specialist
  • Gabe Upchurch, GIS/Remote Sensing Specialist
  • Zhimei Guo, Natural Resource Economist

The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners and Tribes to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands and adjacent areas important to the ecological functions of these wetlands. This program has restored large tracts of wetlands including projects that exceed 10,000 acres in size. Over 2 million acres are currently enrolled in WRP. This program’s impact on wetland dependent wildlife is significant. The 2008 Farm Bill reauthorized WRP and established a new acreage cap of 3,014,200 acres by 2012.

The fundamental objective of WRP is to protect, restore, and enhance the functions and values of wetland ecosystems to attain:

  1. Habitat for migratory birds and other wetland-dependent wildlife, including threatened and endangered species and species of concern
  2. Protection and improvement of water quality
  3. Attenuation of floodwater
  4. Recharge of groundwater
  5. Protection and enhancement of open space and aesthetic quality
  6. Protection of native flora and fauna contributing to the Nation’s natural heritage
  7. Contribution to educational and scientific scholarship

The Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWPP-FPE) was amended under Section 382 of the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, Public Law 104-127, to provide for the purchase of floodplain easements as an emergency measure. Since 1996, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has purchased floodplain easements on lands that qualify for EWPP assistance. Floodplain easements restore, protect, maintain, and enhance the functions of the floodplain; conserve natural values including fish and wildlife habitat, water quality, flood water retention, ground water recharge, and open space; reduce long-term federal disaster assistance; and safeguard lives and property from floods, drought, and the products of erosion.

The fundamental objective of EWPP-FPE is to help landowners, operators, and individuals implement emergency recovery measures to relieve imminent hazards to life or property created by a natural disaster that causes a sudden impairment of a watershed. Floodplain easements:

  1. Restore, protect, maintain, and enhance the functions of the floodplain
    1. Restore the hydraulic capacity of the natural environment
    2. Allow for the natural reach and flow of floods on the floodplain
  2. Conserve natural values, including:
    1. fish and wildlife habitat
    2. water quality
    3. flood water retention
    4. ground water recharge
    5. open space
    1. Reduce long-term federal disaster assistance
    2. Safeguard lives and property from floods, drought, and the products of erosion

The purpose of the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) is to restore and protect forest ecosystems to promote the recovery of threatened and endangered species, candidate species, and state-listed and/or species of special concern. Additional consideration for enrollment can be given to eligible land that will improve plant and animal biodiversity and optimize carbon sequestration in the forest ecosystem. Safe Harbor provisions of the Endangered Species Act or Candidate Conservation Agreements are sought for participants enrolled in the HFRP who agree, for a specified period, to restore or improve their land for threatened or endangered species habitat. In exchange, they minimize the impacts of future regulatory restrictions on the use of that land.

The fundamental objective of HFRP is to assist landowners, on a voluntary basis, in restoring, enhancing, and protecting forestland resources on private lands.

  1. Promote the recovery of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)
  2. Improve plant and animal biodiversity
  3. Enhance carbon sequestration

The purpose of the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) is to assist landowners and operators to protect grazing uses and related conservation values by conserving and restoring grassland resources on eligible private lands through rental contracts and easements. GRP emphasizes supporting grazing operations; maintaining and improving plant and animal biodiversity; and protecting grasslands and shrublands from the threat of conversion to uses other than grazing. As of 2008, there are 250 easements covering more than 115,000 acres in 38 states. The 2008 Farm Bill authorized an additional 1.2 million acres by 2012, thus allowing over a million more acres to enter the program.

The fundamental objective of GRP is to support grazing uses and related conservation values.

  1. Support of grazing operations
  2. Maintaining and improving plant and animal biodiversity
  3. Protecting grasslands and shrublands under threat of conversion to cropping, urban development, and other non-grazing uses

The Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program (FRPP) provides matching funds to help purchase development rights to keep productive farm and ranchland in agricultural uses. Working through existing programs, USDA partners with State, tribal, or local governments and non-governmental organizations to acquire conservation easements or other interests in land from landowners. USDA provides up to 50 percent of the fair market easement value of the conservation easement.

The fundamental objective of FRPP is to protect agricultural use and related conservation values of eligible land by limiting nonagricultural uses of the land.

  1. Protect agricultural productivity by limiting nonagricultural uses of land
  2. Preserve farmland for future generations
  3. Promote prime, unique, or statewide or locally important soils, land containing historic or archaeological sites from conversion to nonagricultural uses, and land that furthers State and local farm and ranch lands protection program policies

NEAP Planning Meeting

  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Discussion topics included the Wetlands Reserve Program, Grasslands Reserve Program, and Healthy Forests Reserve Program. Hierarchical monitoring frameworks were created for the Wetlands Reserve Program, Emergency Watershed Protection Program – Floodplain Easements, Grassland Reserve Program, and Healthy Forests Reserve Program.
  • Conference posters presented:
    • Overview for Monitoring and Managing Conservation Easements
    • Development of a National Monitoring Program to Assess Ecological Condition of Grassland Reserve Program Conservation Easements
    • Effective Strategies to Monitor, Manage, and Ensure Compliance on NRCS Wetland Easements
    • Leveraging Geospatial Technologies for Ecological Monitoring of NRCS Conservation Easements
  • Additional information presented:
    • Data Management System Flow Chart
    • Agency Review Hierarchy