Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced that applications are now being accepted for new, landmark conservation initiatives created by the 2014 Farm Bill.

The programs will provide up to $386 million to help farmers restore wetlands, protect working agriculture lands, support outdoor recreation activities, as well as helping boost the economy.

Vilsack made the announcement at Kuhn Orchards in Orrtanna, Pennsylvania. The farm's owners participate in the USDA Conservation Stewardship Program, have worked to encourage pollinator health through planting practices, and used USDA program support to construct a high tunnel.

Vilsack said, that by protecting working lands and wetlands, it helps to strengthen agricultural operations, sustain the nation's food supply and protect the habitat for a variety of wildlife. 

He noted that in addition the USDA is also providing states and Tribal governments a tool to expand access to private lands for hunting, fishing, hiking, as well as other recreational activities, which helps boost wildlife-related businesses, as well as growing the economy.  

USDA's conservation efforts have helped mitigate the negative impacts of drought and are helping producers to manage the effects of climate change. USDA has enrolled a record number of acres in conservation programs that have saved millions of tons of soil and improved water quality and have contributed to the national effort to preserve habitat for wildlife and protect the most sensitive ecological areas. USDA has partnered with more than 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners on these conservation projects since 2009-a record number.

In addition to protecting cropland and critical habitats, conservation strengthens outdoor recreation and helps boost the economy. According to the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, annual U.S. conservation spending totals $38.8 billion, but it produces $93.2 billion of economic output throughout the economy - 2.4 times more than what is put in. This output takes the form of more than 660,500 jobs, $41.6 billion in income and a $59.7 billion contribution to national Gross Domestic Product.

The new programs announced today are the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program (ACEP) and the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP). Applications for ACEP funding consideration in fiscal year 2014 must be submitted by the individual state deadline or June 6, 2014, whichever is earlier. Applications and state deadline information can be obtained at your local USDA Service Center or at www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted. Applications for VPA-HIP are due by June 16 and should be completed at Grants.gov. For more information, view the notice on Grants.gov or the program's website.

Through the 2014 Farm Bill's new conservation programs, USDA is making available up to $366 million for conservation easements under ACEP to state and local governments, Indian tribes, non-governmental organizations and private landowners. ACEP consolidates three former easement programs—the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program—into one to make conservation efforts more efficient while strengthening tools to protect land and water.

VPA-HIP is a competitive grant program that enables state and Tribal governments to increase opportunities for owners and managers of private lands who want to make their land available for public recreation. Up to $20 million is available this year for VPA-HIP. Both programs have application deadlines later this spring.

Funding for the ACEP and VPA-HIP programs is provided through the 2014 Farm Bill, which authorizes services and programs that impact every American and millions of people around the world. The new Farm Bill builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past five years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for taxpayers. Vilsack said that quickly and effectively implementing new programs and reforms to existing ones called for by the 2014 Farm Bill is a top priority for USDA. Learn more about the Farm Bill at www.nrcs.usda.gov/FarmBill.