WASHINGTON – Maryland will get more than $6.1 million of an $84 million federal fund for agricultural land conservation, the largest share granted to any state this year and well over the $4.9 million the state received last year.
While Maryland is a relatively small state, the tenacity of preservation activists here over the years has helped it get the largest share of the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program funds in the nation for the last two years, a federal official said.
“In Maryland we’ve always had such ready and willing partners who will go out and do the grunt work,” said Mark Waggoner, Maryland’s resource conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
And state conservationists say Maryland needs all the cash it can get in these tight financial times. The federal money “has become increasingly important as state funds have diminished, and their (federal program) funds have increased over the years,” said James Conrad, director of the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation.
Conrad said that last year the foundation got $4 million of the state’s $4.9 million allocation and used that money to save about 2,000 acres of farmland.
The federal money is awarded on a competitive basis to private and government preservation groups by state offices of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. Those groups, in turn, purchase easements in which farmers agree not to develop their property but to keep it in agricultural production in perpetuity.
The farm and ranch preservation funds are matching funds, rather than full grants. That means an organization must prove that it has at least half the capital to buy an easement and meet a number of other criteria before it can get money from the federal conservation service.
The service Wednesday gave states the go-ahead to begin allocating this year’s funds.
Conrad said his foundation has not yet applied for a portion of this year’s fund. But he expects the foundation to again get the lion’s share of the state’s fund, and to use that money to save more acres than it did last year.
He said his group will be competing for that money with well-established preservation organizations in larger jurisdictions like Montgomery and Baltimore counties.
For smaller counties, which have difficulty competing for federal grants, the farm and ranch preservation funds are especially important. Not only do they rely on the funds, they rely on organizations like the preservation foundation to bargain for the easements.
Caroline County, for example, would not have any conservation money without federal funds and the state organizations that help the county get them, said Tammy Buckle, the county’s agricultural planner.
“That money has helped here in the county to preserve additional acres that we could not have preserved on our own,” she said.
But Conrad said it does not matter which agency wins the funding, since it is all going to farm and ranch preservation.
“The point is that the money’s still coming and you’re still protecting the same amount of lands,” he said.
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