Washington Watch, April 2013
On March 4, President Obama released his FY 2015 budget proposal, which includes a full funding proposal of $900 million for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)—including $25 million for urban parks—as well as funding for other key conservation programs.
The LWCF request—three times the current appropriated level—is a very meaningful investment in this important program, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. Funding proposed in the President's budget will support our federal public lands through protection of inholdings in national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, national monuments and other areas; create new parks and trails in local communities; conserve working forests and ranches; protect critical wildlife habitat and improve city parks and playgrounds.
As in any year, Congress has the final say on setting funding levels for LWCF and other programs, and it is a very challenging budgetary environment. As a leading voice in the LWCF Coalition, The Trust for Public Land is fully engaged in the nationwide campaign to bring this proposal to reality.
Here are the programmatic details of LWCF proposed in the President's budget:
Land and Water Conservation Fund - $900 million total (includes $350 million in discretionary/appropriated spending and $550 million in mandatory/dedicated funding (which requires separate legislation); last year's enacted level was $306 million, which was all discretionary/appropriated.
The $900 million is proposed by the President to be allocated among various programs in the following way:
- BLM: $89.397 million ($25 million discretionary/$64.397 million mandatory)
- USFWS: $168.772 million ($55 million discretionary/$113.772 million mandatory)
- NPS: $90.586 million ($60.391 million discretionary/$30.195 million mandatory)
- NPS State Grants: $100.117 million ($51 million discretionary/$76.673 million mandatory)
- OVS appraisal services: $18 million ($12 million discretionary; $6 million mandatory)
- USFS Land acq: $127.673 million ($51 million discretionary/$76.673 million mandatory)
- Forest Legacy Program: $100 million ($53 million discretionary/$47 million mandatory)
- USFWS Cooperative Endangered Species Fund (Sec. 6): $100 million ($50 million discretionary/$50 million mandatory)
- Urban Parks Recreation Fund: $25 million (all mandatory)
On February 7th, President Obama signed into law the Farm Bill (formally known as the "Agricultural Act of 2014"). The House of Representatives passed the bill on January 29th by a vote of 251-166. The US Senate approved the same bill on February 4th by a vote of 68-32. Of particular interest to The Trust for Public Land, the Farm Bill consolidates the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) into a new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). This program will have two branches: a Wetlands easement division (essentially WRP) and an agricultural lands easements division (ALE), which merges the functions of FRPP and GRP.
At first, this consolidation may only appear to be a cosmetic change. However, the consolidation will result in substantive changes related to funding, cost-sharing opportunities, and project eligibility. These changes are explained below.
The bill provides $2 billion over its five year authorization for ACEP. While this funding level is below the total sums provided to WRP, GRP and FRPP in recent years, the conservation easements programs were spared the larger cuts made to other programs in the Farm Bill.
- 2014: $400M
- 2015: $425M
- 2016: $450M
- 2017: $500M
- 2018: $250M
- Total: $2.025B
Notably, the bill does not make specific allocations of ACEP funding to ALE and Wetlands easements. Rather, the bill gives USDA/NRCS discretion to allocate funding of the total provided to ACEP between the two branches. NRCS State Conservationists will have a substantial role in determining which funding branch - ALE or Wetlands - will be prioritized in their state in a given year.
In most cases, NRCS will provide up to 50% of the FMV for ALE projects (up to 75% for grasslands of special environmental significance). [As under the current WRP, NRCS may provide up to 100% of FMV.] The NRCS contribution for ALE must be matched with non-federal resources.
The law includes a provision that would grant the USDA/NRCS authority to waive cash-match on ALE projects. It is important to note, however, that this provision requires an equivalent increase in landowner donation and that the waiver may only be used for projects of "special significance"—a term not yet defined.
In a related positive development, the recently enacted Defense Authorization law includes a provision which permits DOD buffer program (REPI) grants to be considered non-federal match for the purposes of matching federal conservation grant programs of USDA and the Department of the Interior.
Wetland reserve easements
Of note, the new Farm Bill amends the "7-year ownership" rule. This rule, which required land to maintain the same ownership for seven years before it could be enrolled, has been a stumbling block in some cases for enrolling wetlands in the program. Under the new law, the prohibition on enrollment of wetlands which have changed ownership would be reduced to just 24 months. Moreover, that prohibition does not apply if the ownership change was a result of will, succession or foreclosure.
NRCS reports that all State NRCS offices should now be accepting applications for the Wetlands Easement program. The ALE sign up is expected to open in May (hopefully).
Much of the Farm Bill's substance remains to be decided through a rulemaking process. The bill authorizes USDA to adopt—for up to 9 months—the regulations that currently apply to FRPP, GRP and WRP. Interim final rules will be prepared this summer, and the final rules are expected in the fall. The rulemaking process will include opportunities for public comment. If you are interested in participating in the preparation of The Trust for Public Land's comments, please contact Ron Carlton in the Federal Affairs office at your earliest convenience.
National Coastal Wetlands Conservation grants
In January 2014, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe announced the grant recipients of the FY 2014 National Coastal Wetlands Conservation program. About $16.5 million was available for projects. Under this program, $1 million is the maximum award available. The Trust for Public Land received four grants in FY 2014 for projects in Maryland, Georgia, and Puerto Rico totaling $3.03 million. The acquisitions protected two properties totaling 370 acres within the Potomac River watershed in Charles County, Maryland; the 250-acre Ebenezer Creek tract near Savannah, Georgia, the site of the forced separation of liberated slaves from Union troops during the Civil War in which many former slaves drowned; and the 51-acre Dos Mares property in northeastern Puerto Rico that is habitat for 12 federally listed threatened or endangered species.
The USFWS has released the Request for Proposals (RFP) for the FY 2015 round of National Coastal Wetlands Conservation grants. The deadline for submissions is June 27, 2014. (LINK TO FWS PAGE- Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund (Section 6):
The Trust for Public Land is partnering with five states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico on grants submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, which is funded under Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act. The projects in Hawaii, Oregon, Montana, Utah, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico were submitted for the mid-March deadline for the FY 2014 grant round.
Additionally, The Trust for Public Land recently closed on two Section 6 projects: a beachfront tract in Escambia County, Florida to protect habitat for the endangered Perdido Key beach mouse and the Central Sands Pines project in Wisconsin that conserved habitat for the endangered Karner blue butterfly and Kirtland's warbler.
North American Wetlands Conservation Act and Migratory Bird Conservation Fund
On March 26, 2014, the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission approved funding for projects from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act program (NAWCA) and the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. Chaired by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, the commission includes several cabinet secretaries and bipartisan and bicameral representation from Congress. Among the projects approved were a $1 million NAWCA grant for acquisition and enhancement of lands along the Middle Rio Grande in New Mexico that will assist in acquiring land at Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque and a $3.83 million allocation from the Migratory Bird fund for acquisition of land within the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana.
Representative Dave Camp, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, released a draft tax reform bill on February 26, 2014. It included a version of the conservation tax incentive that expired at the end of 2013.
The Camp bill would make permanent the 100% of AGI limit for deductions of donations of conservation easements when taken by qualifying farmers or ranchers, with a 15-year carryover. All other easement donors would be subject to a 40% of AGI limit on annual deductions. This is less than the 50% of AGI limit enjoyed under previous versions of enhanced easement incentive, but it is more than the 30% of AGI limit that now applies to gifts of appreciated property. The draft bill proposes that all donations, both of cash and of property, have a unified limit of no more than 40% of the donor's AGI.
Other provisions in the bill of interest include lower tax rates and new limits on certain other deductions. Deductions of charitable contributions below a floor of 2% of the taxpayer's AGI would not be permitted, but itemizers would be allowed to deduct contributions made up to the time of filing rather than until the end of the year.
It is a positive sign that the bill includes an enhanced conservation tax incentive, but it is also the general consensus that this legislation will not be actively considered by Congress during this election year. It is the beginning of a longer conversation. In the meantime, the effort to extend and make permanent the incentive will continue. New cosponsors are being sought for S. 526 in the Senate and H.R. 2807 in the House. Already there are 20 cosponsors of Senator Max Baucus's (MT) bill and 172 cosponsors of Congressman Jim Gerlach's (PA) bill. There will be other opportunities to add this legislative language to "must-do" bills before the end of the year.
Of note more recently is the inclusion of a proposal in President Obama's FY 2015 budget to extend the conservation tax incentive on a permanent basis. The strong support of the Administration is essential to eventual passage of this legislation.