January 18, 2024

Florida landowners interested in aligning their land uses with conservation values and practices have an opportunity to apply for US-Held or Entity Held Conservation Easements and/or Land Management opportunities in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the North Florida Land Trust (NFLT) in Florida beginning January 17. Landowners who applied for the recent Florida Department of Consumer Services (FDACS) Rural and Family Lands Protection Program (RFLPP) cycle are encouraged to apply for potential match opportunities. Those who are within and/or touching the boundary (see map) are eligible.

Applications for the fiscal year 2024 through the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will be accepted and evaluated by NRCS and NFLT through February 20, 2024. FDACS will be involved in potential match negotiations. NFLT and NRCS accept conservation easement and land management applications year-round; however, applications received after February 20, will be considered for the following sign-up period, as funding allows.

The RCPP is a partner-driven approach to conservation that funds solutions to natural resource challenges on agricultural land. The RCPP promotes coordination of NRCS conservation activities with partners that offer value-added contributions to expand their collective ability to address on-farm, watershed, and regional natural resource concerns.

The state’s RFLPP enthusiastically partners with NFLT and others when federal funds, such as RCPP, are involved. Those funding partnerships help move projects into a priority work plan for the FDACS, which means the conservation easements can be acquired more quickly.

NFLT is leading this RCPP project to protect the Ocala to Osceola Wildlife Corridor (O2O), in partnership with approximately 26 federal, state, and private organizations. The O2O is a 100-mile long, 1.6-million-acre, landscape of public and private lands that connect the Ocala National Forest to the Osceola National Forest. The O2O includes priority lands for the Florida Ecological Greenways Network (FEGN) and is a critical linkage in the Florida Wildlife Corridor. By protecting the natural beauty and sustainability of the landscape and connector lands, the O2O will continue to provide habitat for the Florida black bear and imperiled species like the red-cockaded woodpecker, indigo snake, and gopher tortoise. In addition, there are opportunities for protecting iconic Florida ecosystems, including legacy longleaf pine forests, sandhill, and scrub in the O2O.

As part of this initiative, NRCS and its partners have funding through the RCPP to pay landowners for conservation easements and practices placed upon their land. NRCS and NFLT will be responsible for screening for land eligibility, coordinating appropriately to determine the proper entity holder, coordinating with landowners to develop conservation project applications, negotiating conservation easement terms, and/or developing a land management plan. Due to the complex nature of these projects, landowners interested in these funding opportunities are strongly encouraged to reach out for guidance in the options available prior to applying. Applicants will need to take appropriate steps necessary to establish farm records and certifications. See below for Application Requirements:

Conservation easements and practices funded through the RCPP program may maintain agricultural uses, promote longleaf pine range, native forest and grassland restoration, weather resiliency, carbon sequestration practices, and wildfire adaptability. This program will also contribute to protecting habitats and migration routes of native, threatened, endangered, and imperiled species. To protect water quality and quantity, this program will protect watershed and springshed (i.e., surface and ground waters). Land eligible for conservation easements and/or land management practices within the O2O will be evaluated based on criteria that include connectivity and accessibility to pre-existing conservation tracts, existing working land uses, presence of wetlands and watersheds, and natural habitats that house imperiled species (whether in a present or restorative state). Non-industrial, private forest land may also be enrolled when associated with active agricultural and/or conservation land. NRCS and NFLT encourage landowners and farmers who are historically underserved (HU) to apply. HU farmers are defined as farmers who are beginners, socially disadvantaged, or veterans, and/or who have limited resources.

Participating in the RCPP and RFLPP Grant programs helps secure the future of the nation’s food supply, prevents land with high conservation value from being developed or converted to a non-agricultural use, and provides public benefits including environmental quality, historic preservation, wildlife habitat, and protection of open space.

If you are a landowner interested in conserving your land in partnership with NFLT, the O2O Partnership, and NRCS, please contact:

Heather Barnes, NFLT O2O Coordinator, at hbarnes@nflt.org  or (904) 909-1155.

Michael Ruiz, NRCS RCPP-Easements, at michael.ruiz@usda.gov or (352) 338-9566.

Websites linked in story:

Natural Resources Conservation Service (Florida):  https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/conservation-basics/conservation-by-state/florida

North Florida Land Trust: https://www.nflt.org/

Rural and Family Lands Protection Program: https://www.fdacs.gov/Consumer-Resources/Protect-Our-Environment/Rural-and-Family-Lands-Protection-Program

Regional Conservation Partnership Program: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs-initiatives/rcpp-regional-conservation-partnership-program/florida/regional-conservation

Farm Service Agency; Farmers.gov: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/online-services/farm-plus/index

Highly Erodible Land Determinations: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/resources/guides-and-instructions/highly-erodible-land-determinations

Adjusted Gross Income: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/payment-eligibility/adjusted-gross-income/index

About North Florida Land Trust

North Florida Land Trust is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the quality of life by protecting North Florida’s irreplaceable natural environment. Founded in 1999, NFLT has preserved tens of thousands of acres of land through the donation or purchase of land as well as conservation easements.  NFLT is funded largely by private and corporate contributions and works closely with willing landowners and public agencies at all levels of government, not-for-profit partners, and foundations.