As development encroaches on what is left of Arizona’s private agricultural lands, conservation easements can protect what remains. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has $296,000 available this year to preserve open space, wildlife habitat, and historical and cultural resources.

"These easements can shield the land from development pressure and support our food supply," said Arizona’s State Conservationist, David McKay.

The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) purchases conservation easements to limit conversion of farm and ranch lands to non-agricultural uses. NRCS partners with state, tribal, or local governments and non-government organizations to acquire conservation easements or other interests in land from landowners. NRCS provides up to 50 percent of the appraised fair market value of the conservation easement in this voluntary program. State and local entities can match that amount, including the use of landowner donations.

Secured acres

The amount allocated to Arizona, when matched with the project sponsor’s 50 percent contribution could secure up to 400 acres at $1,500 per acre or approximately 60 at the higher price of $10,000 an acre, according to Steve Smarik, state environmental specialist. “We want to preserve the most acreage for the money, and that is usually found on rural farmland,” he said. Last year Arizona NRCS with sponsors put 2,250 acres at the O-O Ranch in southeastern Arizona into easements and in 2004 placed 50 acres on the Fox Ranch near Flagstaff in an easement.

NRCS is seeking proposals from state, federally recognized tribal and local governments and non-governmental organizations interested in working together to acquire conservation easements on farms and ranches. NRCS state offices must receive proposals by May 11. The final project selections are expected in June.

Nationally, more than $70 million is available through FRPP in fiscal year 2006. Since the program's inception in 1996, more than 277,811 acres of farm and ranch land have been protected in 43 states. The eligible farm or ranch must have the following qualifiers:

— Contain productive soils or historic or archaeological sites.

— Be part of a pending offer from a non-governmental organization, state, tribe or local farmland protection program.

— Be privately owned.

— Covered by a conservation plan.

— Large enough to sustain agricultural production.

— Accessible to markets for what the land produces.

— Surrounded by parcels of land that can support long-term agricultural production.

The Announcement of Program Funding can be found at http://www.grants.gov/ and http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/frpp. Additional FRPP information also can be found at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/frpp.