ACEP-WRE for Landowners
- Learn About ACEP-WRE
- Prepare to Participate
- Apply to ACEP-WRE
Learn About ACEP-WRE
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Wetland Reserve Easement (ACEP-WRE) is a voluntary federal conservation program implemented by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). WRE pays landowners to remove land from production and restore and protect wetlands that were previously degraded by agricultural use.
Learn About Conservation Easements
A conservation easement is a voluntary deed restriction you can place on your property to protect important resources including agricultural uses, wildlife habitat or wetlands. The easement is granted to and held by a qualified land trust, public agency, or tribe with the authority to monitor and enforce the terms of the easement, including restrictions on uses and activities that could threaten the values you are trying to protect. Conservation easements can cover either an entire parcel or just a portion. Landowners work with the easement holder to decide which areas will be protected and have a voice in which uses and activities will be prohibited depending on easement type.
Conservation easements are usually permanent and run with the land ensuring protections remain in place with new landowners. They can be used to protect wetlands and associated natural areas to provide habitat, improve water quality, and enhance groundwater recharge. Conservation easements that protect wetlands limit activities and uses like development, agricultural production, roads, and other structures that would threaten these values.
Learn About Wetlands
Wetlands are special ecosystems created by the constant or recurring presence of water. Over time this creates hydric soils, which are soils formed in the absence of oxygen. Hydric soils and the availability of water during the growing season provide conditions needed for development of specialized water-dependent plant communities. Water, hydric soils, and water dependent plants are the three components that must be present for a wetland to exist and function. Wetlands provide important habitat and ecological functions such as floodwater retention and storage, groundwater recharge, natural filtration of sediments and nutrients by plants and microorganisms, and carbon sequestration.
Wetlands are highly productive ecosystems, supporting unique plant communities that in turn provide food and habitat for a wide range of fish and wildlife, birds, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and other invertebrates. One-third of the United States threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and many other animals and plants depend on wetlands for survival.
Wetlands include wet meadows, vernal pools, swamps, marshes, bogs, and bottomland areas with water at or near the surface. They are often located in areas of farms that are lower than surrounding landscapes or are in swales and drainageways. They can be large and cover many acres, or small such as wet potholes in forests, pasture, and cropland. The source of their water can be rainwater retained by clay soils, runoff water from higher areas, ground water or a high water table, and water from adjacent streams and ponds. On farms, wetlands act as a natural buffer, slowing storm water runoff and filtering sediment, nutrients, and chemicals. This reduces downstream flooding and streambank erosion and improves water quality. Wetlands provide critical habitat for beneficial insects and native pollinators, which are becoming more recognized for their importance for producing high quality crops, especially fruits and vegetables. They also provide valuable recreational opportunities including hunting, hiking, birdwatching, and scenic enjoyment.
Degraded wetlands are missing one or more core features—hydrology, soils, or vegetation—or have been damaged to the extent that the land no longer functions as a natural wetland. Wetlands are commonly degraded in agricultural settings by draining or diverting the water that feeds them to bring more land into production. This could include excavation of surface drainage ditches, installation of underground pipes and drains, or land grading. Wetlands also may have been degraded by removal of native vegetation. While draining water and/or removing wetland plants may make land more farmable, the base hydric soils still have significant limitations for agricultural uses. Indicators of drained or degraded wetlands include stream channels that are straightened instead of meandering, ditches or parallel swales not normally found in nature, pipes or stone drains coming from a field that discharge water into streams or road ditches. Degraded wetlands may be next to intact wetlands that have retained their hummocky topography, wetland plants and water regime. Drained wetlands used for crop production often have places where farm equipment becomes stuck or leaves ruts, because even with drainage the hydric soils tend to retain water.
Explore How ACEP-WRE Works
Under the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) component, NRCS acquires conservation easements or enters into contracts with landowners on eligible degraded wetlands and eligible adjacent lands. In the case of WRE, the United States is the easement holder. NRCS works with landowners to restore wetlands. WRE projects always include protection and restoration. WRE enrollment options include:
- Permanent easements
- 30-year easements
- Term easements – Term easements are easements that are in place for the maximum duration allowed under state law.
- 30-year contracts – Only available to acreage owned by Indian Tribes.
Payments will vary based on the enrollment option selected and the length of the easement or contract. NRCS covers up to 100% of the costs of wetland restoration for perpetual easements and up to 75% for non-perpetual easements or contracts.
As a landowner, you will work with NRCS to decide which areas of your property will be protected and restored. NRCS reviews applications and determines whether they meet the program’s eligibility criteria. NRCS works with eligible applicants to develop a preliminary wetland restoration plan with estimated costs. This plan helps NRCS evaluate the likelihood of successful restoration and the significance of the wetland functions and values. Based on this information, NRCS ranks the proposed project alongside other applications. A landowner who is eligible and whose application ranks high enough will be offered an “Agreement for the Purchase of Conservation Easement” (APCE), or “Agreement to Enter Contract for 30-Year Land Use” (AECLU), as applicable.
Once you accept the offer, NRCS will work with you to develop the final conservation easement or contract documents and a Wetland Restoration Plan of Operation (WRPO). A WRPO, to the extent practicable, restores the hydrology and original native plant community of a degraded wetland. Conservation professionals with expertise in soils, plants and biology identify the site’s original soils, hydrology, vegetation, and wildlife, including any rare or at-risk species. They develop cost-effective restoration options. Restoration plans commonly include a mix of constructed or engineered practices to restore hydrology, planting plans to re-establish native vegetation, and operation and maintenance guidance for both. In rare cases, the original hydric soils that are the basis for a wetland are so severely impacted that it is not possible to cost-effectively restore a wetland. Once the easement or contract has been signed, NRCS will be your contact for restoration, maintenance, monitoring, and enforcement throughout the life of the easement or contract.
WRE enables you to retire marginal agricultural lands and restore native vegetation and wildlife habitat. These activities may improve passive recreation opportunities, such as hunting and fishing. You can use WRE payments to acquire land that is more suitable for active agricultural use.
Get to Know NRCS
NRCS is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. NRCS works with farmers, ranchers, and owners of agricultural land to improve agricultural productivity and protect natural resources through conservation practices and programs. NRCS is USDA’s lead technical assistance agency for private lands conservation. Agency staff have expertise in easement administration and in agricultural and natural resources conservation planning and management.
If NRCS or USDA are new to you, the first step would be to visit your local USDA Service Center, meet your local conservationists, and establish records used to qualify landowners for USDA programs. The agency has a statewide office in each state and local service centers in most counties throughout the U.S. Some local service centers serve more than one county. ACEP-WRE program administration staff are often located in the state office, while district conservationists and field staff are in local offices.
Prepare to Participate
Assess Your Readiness
ACEP-WRE enables you to restore and protect wetlands and the function of your land’s natural systems, enhance wildlife habitat, and enjoy passive recreation opportunities. Wetlands act as a natural buffer, slowing storm water runoff and filtering sediment, nutrients, and chemicals. This reduces downstream flooding and streambank erosion and improves water quality. Before you invest more time, however, consider if you are:
- Comfortable working with a federal agency. You and all other landowners listed on the deed will need to share information with USDA in order to participate in the program.
- Willing to live with a permanent or long-term restriction on your property.
- Ready to restore and manage your land as natural wetlands and wildlife habitat.
- Willing to maintain a long-term relationship with NRCS who will work with you to uphold the terms of the easement or contract.
- Willing to forego other USDA program payments for the life of the easement. Any existing cropland base and allotment history for enrolled acres will be permanently retired at the time the easement is recorded.
Explore Your Eligibility
Landowners must meet minimum ACEP-WRE eligibility criteria related to income and on-farm conservation compliance. If the land parcel is owned by more than one person or entity, each owner must individually meet these requirements. Refer to the deed to identify every person or entity that has ownership rights in the land, as each will need to separately complete eligibility documentation. Land trusts are eligible landowners under ACEP-WRE. If the land is owned by an entity, all members of that entity must meet income requirements. Depending on the entity ownership structure, members may need to meet conservation compliance requirements. Staff at USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) can help guide you through this eligibility certification process.
You will need:
- Records established with FSA to identify landowners and land.
- An average Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) below $900,000 for the three preceding tax years.
- Compliance with USDA’s conservation requirements for highly erodible land and wetlands.
FSA is an agency of the USDA that handles many financial operations for the department’s programming. FSA maintains records verifying landowners meet AGI and highly erodible land and wetland conservation requirements. FSA offices are often co-located with NRCS offices. These offices are called Service Centers and have locations in almost every county across the country. You can make an appointment with your local Service Center to get the relevant forms and receive assistance completing them. When making your appointment, ask FSA staff what documentation you should bring with you in order to streamline the process. If you have participated in USDA programs in the past, you may have records already established that identify the parcels you own and/or farm and other farm information.
FSA can provide a Subsidiary Print report that summarizes key eligibility information. Ideally, this documentation should be completed at least 2 to 3 months before applying. You may need to update documents such as the AGI certification at the start of a new federal fiscal year (October 1).
Indian Tribes and Alaska Native Corporations are eligible to participate in ACEP-WRE. They must be federally recognized, meaning they are listed in an annual publication from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the Federal Register. In addition to the WRE easement options, Tribes are eligible to participate by entering into a 30-year land use contract.
Tribal entities must be compliant with Highly Erodible Land/Wetland Conservation provisions but are exempt from AGI provisions. Individuals who apply in their own name for land they own do need to meet AGI provisions even if they personally are American Indian or Alaskan Native.
Land Ownership Length Requirements
You must have owned the land you are enrolling for at least 24 months before you apply. There are some exceptions. NRCS staff can provide you with additional information about a waiver if an exception applies to you.
- ACEP-WRE Landowner Eligibility Checklist
- U.S. Department of Interior Federally Recognized Tribes
- Get Started at Your USDA Service Center
- USDA Common Forms
- FSA Payment Eligibility Web Page
- FSA AGI Fact Sheet
- USDA Conservation Compliance Fact Sheet
- Example Individual Landowner Subsidiary Print
- Example Entity Landowner Subsidiary Print
- List of Federally Recognized Tribes
Understand How NRCS Determines Land Eligibility
NRCS will be determining your land’s eligibility for enrollment. Agency staff will interview you and visit the property to learn more about your goals and evaluate the site. NRCS will determine whether your land:
- Is privately owned, or owned by an Indian Tribe or Alaska Native Corporation;
- Maximizes wildlife benefits and wetland functions and values;
- Is capable of being restored, taking into consideration the cost and whether the site can support wetland hydrology and native vegetation, including adequate water rights where applicable;
- Contains eligible land types, which include:
- Farmed or converted wetlands that were previously degraded by agricultural use (in general wetlands converted after 1985 are not eligible);
- Croplands or grasslands flooded by overflow of a closed basin lake or pothole;
- Riparian areas that will link protected wetlands;
- Certain land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), including restored land that is likely to return to production after it is removed from CRP enrollment;
- Wetlands restored or protected under another restoration program, such as Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) or Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, where a WRE easement or contract will provide additional protection; or
- Adjacent lands that serve as a buffer to the wetlands or align boundaries.
- Is large enough and configured to allow efficient restoration, management, maintenance, monitoring, and enforcement;
- Has sufficient physical and legal access from a public right-of-way; and
- Has acceptable on-site and off-site property conditions. NRCS will note the risk of hazardous materials, rights-of-way such as utility transmission lines, infrastructure development, or adjacent land uses that would undermine the purposes of the program.
Land is not eligible if it, (1) is already subject to protections similar to WRE, (2) has unacceptable exceptions to clear title, (3) has third-party rights that interfere with WRE purposes, or (4) if enrollment would cause more than 25% of the total cropland in the county to be enrolled in CRP and WRE.
Identify Enrollment Area
Before you apply, talk to NRCS staff about how participation in WRE supports your future goals and discuss easement or contract boundaries. The size and configuration of the area proposed for enrollment may impact your land’s eligibility and ranking. The number of acres you enroll impacts the easement payment. You can start exploring potential easement boundaries using the NRCS Web Soil Survey tool below, noting your property’s land uses and soil quality. Your local NRCS office may also be able to provide a soils report for your property that lists specific soil mapping units and if they include hydric soils that you can use to plan alternative project boundaries. NRCS uses several resources to assess your land. If you are interested in learning more about these references and tools refer to the list below.
As you explore your options, keep in mind the following:
- If you do not plan on enrolling the entire parcel, can the proposed area still be effectively restored on its own, and what configuration could help make future easement maintenance and monitoring simpler?
- Submitting the entire parcel, if eligible, may improve the ranking of your application and maximize easement payment. In addition, NRCS will give preference to applications that include key wetland and habitat areas.
- Consider excluding areas from the easement that have improvements you want to retain, such as buildings or improved roads. Think about how you will maintain access to portions of your property that are not included in the easement for yourself and for NRCS.
NRCS can provide you with feedback about what boundary options align best with the program’s purposes. Ultimately, NRCS determines if the final boundaries comply with program policy and regulatory requirements. It is important to think through these items and decide on a project area before applying. While there may be opportunities to make minor changes in easement boundaries during the application process, these changes can slow down the process and impact payments. The boundaries cannot be changed after the easement is in place.
Consider Wetland and Habitat Restoration Options
NRCS will give highest priority to applications with the best potential to restore the original wetland and habitat types. If this cannot be done or done economically, there may be restoration options that provide alternative wetland and habitat that occurs naturally in the area.
You should discuss with NRCS what the likely original wetland and habitat was and what the restoration options are. If you apply, NRCS will develop a preliminary Wetland Reserve Plan of Operations (WRPO) to assess the original wetland types and habitats and what restoration practices may be needed. This plan is developed collaboratively, with NRCS giving final approval. You can provide input into what boundaries and restoration practices will meet your objectives. Before then, research what kinds of restoration might be done. Your local NRCS office may be able to provide examples.
- NRCS Web Soil Survey
- NRCS Electronic Field Office Technical Guide
- NRCS Hydric Soils Web Page
- NRCS State Soil Data Access (SDA) Hydric Soils List
- How to Use the Web Soil Survey
- Tri-State WRE Management Video Series
- Indiana NRCS WRE Video
- Delaware Wetland Restoration
- Wetland Restoration in Western Minnesota
Review the WRE Deed or Contract
ACEP-WRE uses standard language for easement deeds and contracts. It is important to read and understand the terms before applying, since they cannot be changed after the easement is in place. Consider consulting with an attorney to help review the terms and represent your interests in the transaction.
Landowners retain rights to quiet enjoyment, control of access, undeveloped recreational uses such as hunting and fishing, water rights, and subsurface mineral rights provided that drilling or mining activities must be located outside the easement area. The deed allows NRCS to conduct restoration and management activities. The WRE deed does not allow activities which are contrary to the easement purposes of restoring and protecting natural wetland functions and values and wildlife habitat. Prohibited activities include agricultural activities such as planting or harvesting crops, haying, and grazing, altering grassland, woodland and wildlife habitat, building structures, draining, dredging or filling. WRE deeds and contracts are fundamentally different from ALE deeds because they do not allow agricultural production and do not make allowances for building envelopes or impervious surfaces.
- WRE Warranty Easement Deed in Perpetuity, NRCS-LTP-30
- WRE Warranty Easement Deed for a Period of 30 Years, NRCS-LTP-32
- WRE Contract for 30-Year Land Use, NRCS-LTP-43A
Understand Easement or Contract Value
NRCS determines easement or contract values using either an Areawide Market Analysis or an individual Uniform Standards for Professional Appraisal Practices (USPAP) appraisal to establish fair market value and then applying a Geographic Area Rate Cap (GARC) to this value. The GARC is established each fiscal year in consultation with the State Technical Committee. The GARC takes into consideration appraised property values, location, land use, and program demand. Contact your state NRCS easement program staff to get a copy of the rates for your area. You can also check your NRCS state easement program web page.
NRCS pays all or a portion of the costs to restore wetlands and habitat. Restoration work can be contracted by NRCS, subcontracted to a third-party agency or organization with experience with wetland restoration, or can be subcontracted by the landowner who is reimbursed by NRCS at agreed-to amounts. Be sure to talk to NRCS about who is responsible for the cost of ongoing maintenance associated with practices and activities described in the WRPO.
Apply to ACEP-WRE
Be Aware of Application Cycles
If you decide to apply for ACEP-WRE, one of the first things to do is learn about the current year’s timeline for filing an application. Applications for WRE are accepted on a rolling basis, but NRCS state offices post information each year about application batching periods, the dates when submitted applications are evaluated and ranked. The federal fiscal year begins on October 1st. You can also contact your state or local NRCS office to ask about WRE application dates, procedures, and additional materials required for an application. It is also helpful to let your local NRCS District Conservationist know that you are planning to apply for WRE. In some states, this person may be the one conducting site visits and long-term monitoring.
Learn About ACEP-WRE Ranking Criteria
Ranking establishes the order that funding offers will be made to landowners when the number of applications exceeds available funding. The criteria NRCS uses to rank applications help ensure the agency prioritizes projects that meet the purposes of the program in statute—to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands. Ranking criteria may consider:
- Conservation benefits, including:
- Hydrology restoration potential
- Whether habitat will be restored for migratory birds and wetland-dependent wildlife
- Whether habitat for threatened, endangered, or at-risk species will be restored
- Proximity to other protected habitat
- Whether the location or type of land supports state or regional goals for wetland restoration or wildlife habitat
- The cost-effectiveness of each easement, considering estimated cost of restoration;
- Other financial contributions; and
- Whether the easement is permanent.
NRCS develops factors with input from the State Technical Committee. NRCS state offices may establish local priority areas, identify priority wildlife habitat, determine the likelihood of successful restoration, and provide other criteria that may be integrated into their ranking procedures. As a result, ranking criteria are unique to each state and are updated each fiscal year and are posted on the state NRCS web page. If you do not see your state’s ranking criteria posted, contact the state NRCS program manager.
Gather Supporting Documentation
Before completing an application form, confirm that each landowner listed on the property deed has updated income and conservation compliance certifications with FSA for the fiscal year in which you are applying. This will ensure you are eligible to participate in WRE and receive payments. If you are unsure, request a Subsidiary Print report from FSA. Below is an example of this report.
You will need a copy of the deed for the property. The deed is used throughout the application process to provide information about landowners, their share of ownership, and length of ownership. You will also need a map that clearly shows property boundaries and legal access to the proposed easement. A tax map on a photo base can be used. FSA may be able to provide a map or an aerial photograph of the property if you have established farm records with them.
- WRE National Application Checklist
- Example Individual Landowner Subsidiary Print
- Example Entity Landowner Subsidiary Print
Complete Your Application Form
Use the Conservation Program Application (NRCS-CPA-1200) to apply for ACEP-WRE. The form and instructions are available from your local NRCS office or online from NRCS’s Applications and Forms page. If there are multiple landowners, it is helpful to designate one individual owner as the primary contact person and representative for the application. That person will need to have authority to represent other landowners for the purposes of applying for WRE. Ask NRCS about the requirements to document signature authority. You can provide existing signature authority documents to NRCS for their review and approval.
Contact your local NRCS office if you have questions about completing the application. Allow yourself enough time to compile information and complete the required certifications so the application and supporting material can be submitted by your state’s application batching period. Applications that are received after the cutoff date may be considered in the next application cycle, which may not be until the following year depending on funding availability. Applications are generally submitted to your local NRCS office. There may be options to submit by electronic means such as email or through your farmers.gov account if you have registered for one. Your state or local NRCS program staff can tell you the best way to submit an application.
- CPA-1200 Application Form
- NRCS Applications and Forms
- FSA Power of Attorney Form, FSA-211
Prepare for a Site Visit
Once your application is submitted, NRCS will make an initial determination about whether it meets eligibility requirements. State NRCS staff will work to collect information about your land’s eligibility and may contact you to help fill in information gaps. NRCS staff will then schedule a site visit with you to further confirm land eligibility, conduct preliminary investigations, develop a preliminary restoration plan, and gather the information needed to complete ranking. NRCS may also assess whether any existing structures or improvements on the proposed easement or contract area are compatible with WRE.
NRCS staff will complete the Hazardous Materials Field Inspection Checklist and Landowner Interview using information gathered from an interview with you and the site assessment. You will complete the Landowner Disclosure Worksheet. In addition, NRCS will work with a private environmental firm to check records for any hazardous material spills or potential off-site sources of contamination that might impact the parcel. Funding decisions are made once these steps are complete.