NRCS NATIONAL EASEMENT ASSESSMENT PROJECT (NEAP)
Natural Resources Conservation Service and University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture
The Need for NEAP
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 USDA 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. Further, 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. As 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 (UTIA) established the NRCS National Easement Assessment Project (NEAP).
The goal of NRCS NEAP is to develop strategies to monitor, adaptively manage, and ensure compliance of NRCS easements enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP), Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP), and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program-Floodplain Easements (EWPP-FPE). Based on discussions and feedback from local, state and federal agencies, NGOs, conservation groups, academia, and other stakeholders, the NEAP team will compile monitoring recommendations from >100 natural resource professionals for the five USDA NRCS easement programs. Preliminary bioassessment models will be drafted and a cost-benefit analysis performed based on these recommendations. Additionally, the NEAP Team will work with the NRCS Remote Sensing Labs (RSLs) to develop and test strategies for remotely monitoring compliance and large-scale ecological attributes associated with easements. In practice, data collected during bioassessment and remote sensing activities will be used to make science-based decisions on the achievement of program objectives and whether management practices should be applied. Thus, the NEAP strategies will help guide ecological monitoring, adaptive management and compliance verification on NRCS easements, and will contribute to validating the investment of public funds on private lands for natural resource conservation.