Coalition of conservation, sportsmen, forest management entities applauds introduction of Forest Conservation Easement Program Act; bipartisan legislation will fill a critical gap, help keep private forestland intact and sustainably managed for timber

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WASHINGTON , May 17, 2023 (press release) –

Today a coalition of conservation, sportsmen and forest management organizations and companies applauded the introduction of the Forest Conservation Easement Program (FCEP) Act of 2023. The bipartisan legislation will fill a critical gap and help keep private forestland intact and sustainably managed for timber, allowing the lands to continue providing numerous benefits to rural and urban communities.

The legislation was introduced today in the U.S. House by U.S. Representative Trent Kelly, R-Miss., and U.S. Representative Annie Kuster, D-N.H., with the goal of including the legislation in the 2023 Farm Bill.

“I am excited to introduce legislation that creates the Forest Conservation Easement Program. The forest industry employs a large amount of Mississippi’s manufacturing workforce. The FCEP will aid in producing more good-paying manufacturing jobs, supplying wood and fiber for forest products, and protecting wildlife,” U.S. Representative Trent Kelly said.

“New Hampshire is home to some of the most beautiful land in the world — we have a generational responsibility to protect our environment for our children and grandchildren. That starts with preserving our forests,” said U.S. Representative Annie Kuster. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation to keep private forestland intact and encourage responsible stewardship so we can enjoy our forests and preserve our natural resources for years to come.”

The legislation, if passed and signed into law, will prevent the conversion of forests into non-forest areas by offering reliable funding to purchase development rights from willing private landowners, which will be codified as voluntary conservation easements. FCEP is an expansion of and successor to the current Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). As a successor program, FCEP has the potential to offer new resources to meet various needs, which is especially critical at this time. One significant feature of this expansion is that conservation easements can now be held by non-federal entities, similar to a longstanding program for farmland and ranchland. This fills a vital funding gap for forestland.

“Every year we lose more and more intact working forests to fragmentation and conversion to development. Since 2007 we have lost more than 7.5 million acres,” said Larry Selzer, president and CEO of The Conservation Fund. “The Conservation Fund is dedicated to addressing the threat of forestland conversion and applauds U.S. Representatives Kelly and Kuster for stepping up to provide an important, missing conservation tool to preserve working forests. We look forward to working with our leaders in Congress to get this pragmatic and bipartisan solution included in the 2023 Farm Bill.”

“The United States loses approximately half a million acres of privately owned forest land to development each year, at the expense of clean water, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, timber supplies and more,” said Andrew Bowman, president and CEO of the Land Trust Alliance. “Land trusts are uniquely positioned to help private forest owners protect and manage their lands while also educating the public about the benefits of forest conservation to the environment and economy. We’re grateful for the efforts of Reps. Trent Kelly and Annie Kuster in introducing this bill that will allow land trusts to work with the federal government to ensure that private forests remain forests.”

“Conservation easement programs are an important tool that should be available to all private forest owners,” said Dave Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners. “Combined with healthy markets for forest products, conservation easement programs help privately owned forests provide a full range of benefits to rural communities. These include both economic prosperity and maintaining healthy populations of common and at-risk species and the habitats they need. Smart legislation, like the Forest Conservation Easement Program Act of 2023, helps America’s private working forests continue to provide clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and good paying jobs in rural communities.”

“From filtering drinking water, providing habitat for wildlife, buffering flood waters and sequestering carbon, to providing much-needed forest products and jobs, forests are an essential part of the fabric of America,” says Camille Green, conservation policy coordinator for Wildlife Mississippi. “The Forest Conservation Easement Program will help preserve forests for future generations to enjoy.”

“Forest conservation has been a priority of the Boone and Crockett Club since Theodore Roosevelt helped establish the Timberland Reserve Bill in 1891, which began creating forests to be held in the public trust,” says James L. Cummins, president of the Boone and Crockett Club. “We have great, voluntary, easement-based conservation programs for almost every habitat type except forests. With the many pressures we have today on our nation’s forests and the many opportunities we have to utilize them to solve many of society’s problems, the Forest Conservation Easement Program is the logical next tool we need to advance forest conservation for the next generation.”

“Voluntary conservation agreements are proven tools for conserving forests,” said Jeff Crane, president & CEO of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. “We applaud Representatives Kelly and Kuster for championing the Forest Conservation Easement Program Act of 2023 to provide additional incentives for landowners to conserve working forests and thereby support habitat for fish and wildlife and our outdoor sporting traditions that depend on healthy habitats to provide quality experiences for sportsmen and women.”

At its core, FCEP introduces two components, both of which seek to expand conservation program options on private and tribal forestland while supporting sustainable forest management and production.

  • Through forest land easements, NRCS will allow eligible entities, such as land trusts, to purchase working forest conservation easements, filling a void among federal programs. Currently, no existing forest easement program allows land trusts to hold easements.
  • Through forest reserve easements, NRCS will purchase forest conservation easements directly from forest landowners while additionally providing financial assistance for the management and restoration of the lands to benefit at-risk species. This aspect of FCEP serves as the successor to the HFRP.

Conservation easements allow private forest landowners to keep forests intact now and for future generations, ensuring the land remains privately owned and working. This provides stable forest cover, advances conservation goals and perpetuates timber supply for forest products. Private working forests in the United States support 2.5 million jobs, filter nearly 30 percent of the nation’s drinking water, provide habitat for 60 percent of at-risk species and serve as a powerful carbon sink.

According to the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, approximately 500,000 acres of U.S. forestland are converted to other land uses every year, highlighting the urgency of conserving and maintaining privately owned forested areas. While this forestland loss has been offset by reforestation of other lands, the quality of forests replacing those that have been lost are not equal. Moreover, forests are facing greater threats than ever before, including wildfire, habitat loss, pests, diseases and invasive species.

The existing NRCS Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) is crucial for preserving working farmland and ranchland, but most forestland is ineligible. Additionally, the existing forest easement programs target state or federal conservation priorities, through the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program (FLP) or HFRP, respectively. These are highly successful and important programs, but FCEP is needed to fill a gap by providing mandatory funding for the two different easement options: forest land easements and forest reserve easements, with this funding being in addition to funding for ACEP and FLP.

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