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National, State, and Local Land Preservation Programs

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Public interest in agricultural land protection, especially against fragmentation and haphazard development, has increased steadily since the 1950s. As this interest has grown, the preservation toolbox has expanded from local and state to the federal level. USDA programs designed to preserve working agricultural landscapes include:

  • Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP): FRPP leverages federal funds with state and local funds to purchase conservation easements on prime and locally important or unique land by limiting conversion to non-agricultural uses.
  • Forest Legacy Program (FLP): FLP establishes partnerships between the Forest Service (FS) and state forestry agencies to protect environmentally important private forestlands from conversion to non-forest uses.
  • Grassland Reserve Program (GRP): Through conservation easements or rental agreements, GRP protects and restores grasslands from conversion to cropland and other non-agricultural uses and enables viable ranching operations to restore plant and animal biodiversity.

State and Local

Over the past 50 years, public and private organizations at the state and local levels have used a variety of tools to preserve agricultural land. Examples of these tools include:

  • Differential Tax Assessment Programs: Beginning in 1956 with the inception of Maryland ’s differential property tax assessment program, today every state except Michigan has a differential property tax assessment program that assesses agricultural land based on its use value, instead of its fair market value. The program either reduces property taxes on agricultural lands or defers taxes for as long as the land remains in agriculture.
  • Agricultural District Programs: California enacted the first agricultural districts law in 1965, commonly known as the Williamson Act. Landowners are allowed to create “agricultural preserves” areas. New York was the first state to create a comprehensive agricultural district program to protect farmland and support the farming business. Agricultural district programs operated in 16 states as of 2001 [ FIC (Farmland Information Center) fact sheets]. Agricultural districts are legally recognized geographic entities where agricultural activities and their land bases are encouraged and protected. In addition, all 50 states have nuisance protection statutes (also known as “right-to-farm” laws) for agricultural operations.
  • Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Programs: In 1967, Boulder County in Colorado established a TDR program to protect agricultural lands and open space. This program enables landowners to transfer the development rights on one parcel of land to another parcel of land, such as from an agricultural zone to designated higher-density development areas. Besides maintaining working agricultural landscapes, TDR programs may be designed for multiple purposes, such as to conserve environmentally sensitive areas or preserve historic landmarks. As of 2000, Montgomery County in Maryland had more than 40,000 acres, which accounted for 60 percent of the national total, enrolled in TDR program (FIC fact sheets).
  • Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easement (PACE) Programs: In 1974, Suffolk County in New York enacted the first PACE (also known as purchase of development rights or PDR) program. King County in Washington and the states of Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut quickly followed suit. PACE programs are voluntary on the landowner’s part and permanently protect agricultural land by removing the development rights. As of 2003, the PACE program operates in 23 states, including 19 statewide and more than 45 local programs (FIC fact sheets). This program has expanded due to the federal FRPP, FLP, and GRP, which provide matching funds to support local, state, and private easement acquisitions.
  • Conservation Easement Donations: For landowners, one of the most common ways to permanently preserve agricultural land is to donate a conservation easement (therein extinguishing the identified development rights) to a qualified conservation organization or public entity. If donating the entire easement value is not feasible, landowners can make a partial donation. According to the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), more than 1,260 local and regional land trusts were operating in the United States in 2000. These organizations have preserved more than 6.2 million acres of farmland and other natural and cultural resources.
  • Other Tools: Communities need to use a combination of tools and techniques as part of a comprehensive effort to protect agricultural land. Examples of other common tools that communities can use include comprehensive planning initiatives; agricultural zoning; regional tax sharing; urban growth boundaries and growth management; and agricultural viability and economic development programs.

Land-Grant Colleges and Universities (LGUs)

Many programs related to agricultural land preservation may be found in the Land-Grant University System. Some examples include:

  • Research, Education, and Extension: Each U.S. state and territory has at least one land-grant university (LGU) including state agricultural experiment station(s) and a state cooperative extension service. The experiment stations generate knowledge through strategic research to enhance agriculture, natural resources, families, and communities. The state extension service provides educational training and outreach to local citizens and groups and has a county or regional extension office near most U.S. residents. Both the agricultural experiment stations and the nationwide Cooperative Extension Service have a long history of engagement in research, teaching, education, extension, and outreach on issues surrounding land use and policy. Scientists conduct research, such as to assess the environmentally significant values on land or understand the implications of land-use policy. Teaching trains future scientists and educators who will discover or transfer knowledge to address land-use issues and implications for the environment and ecosystems. Extension and outreach supports the local citizens by facilitating informed discussions on land use and setting priorities for decisionmaking at the community level.
  • Land-Use Endowed Chairs: The increasingly importance and complexity of land-use issues have led to two endowed chairs being established in the LGUs: (1) the C. William Swank Rural-Urban Policy Chair at the Ohio State University; and (2) the John Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy at Michigan State University. Both land-use endowed chairs provide substantial leadership at the state and national levels to address these complex issues through research, education, extension, and outreach.
  • Examples of LGU Land-Use Education Programs: In addition to the two land-use endowed programs noted above, several examples of land-use programs at the LGUs include the University of California at Davis, Colorado State University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Wyoming.

Nongovernmental Organizations

Increasingly, in partnership with local, state, or federal programs, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), especially lnd trusts have since increased in purchasing agricultural conservation easements. Most land trust activities take place at the local and state levels, such as the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts and Sonoran Institute. However, prominent national organizations working on land preservation include the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the Land Trust Alliance (LTA) , and the Trust for Public Land.

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Back to Agricultural Land Preservation in the United States: Fundamental Approaches and Resources