Council Votes to Expand Funding, New Program Guidelines
This week, the state of California greatly expanded funding for the country’s first climate change and farmland conservation program. The Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) funds conservation easements on agricultural lands to permanently protect them and reduce sprawl development. The program also funds efforts by local governments to improve their land use planning and policy development to support long-term conservation of agricultural lands in their region.
The Strategic Growth Council (Council), made up of members of Governor Jerry Brown’s cabinet and appointed public members, voted to increase SALCP funding to $40 million, up from $5 million last year. The SALCP funding of $40 million represents nearly half of what the state has invested in farmland conservation in the past 18 years through its California Farmland Conservancy Program.
This significant new funding for farmland conservation in the state should help address the on-going significant loss of agricultural land in California, which averages 50,000 acres annually.
SALCP brings together farmland conservation with climate change by focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the conversion of agricultural lands to urban, suburban and rural ranchette development. The program was created following research at UC Davis by Louise Jackson, Stephen Wheeler and others that found that an acre of urban land in Yolo County emitted 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to an acre of irrigated cropland. The climate benefits of farmland, including its ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon, are lost when the land is converted to urban or other non-agricultural uses.
Demand for SALCP has been high. In 2015, the first year of the program, over $45 million in requests for SALCP funding were made, but only $5 million was available. Despite this, SALCP funded conservation easements on 14,000 acres and funded five counties to develop agricultural land conservation strategies.
The Council also approved new program guidelines for the second round of funding. Among the changes to SALCP is a reduced matching funds requirement for conservation easement projects: 25 percent match for most projects and 10 percent match for easements in disadvantaged communities. The program also expanded the amount of funding available for the local government planning grants, now called the Strategy and Outcome grants, up to $250,000. These positive changes should improve program access.
However, CalCAN, joined by several land trusts, conservation and local government groups, supported additional improvements to the new program guidelines that were not taken up by the Council.
Under the new guidelines, easement applicants will have to meet new criteria to demonstrate that the lands they intend to put under conservation easement, in partnership with willing landowners, are at risk of development. While we support the program focusing on at-risk lands, the threshold criteria is too prescriptive and does not reflect the geographic diversity of the state.
Furthermore, new constraints on the planning and policy grants narrow the program and may hurt the state’s ability to incentivize smart growth policy development to protect farmlands, a key strategy to support the conservation easements. We will continue to work with our allies to improve program implementation going forward.
The SALCP request for proposals will be released in the next few weeks, and CalCAN will announce when they are available. Interested applicants can also check for details here.