The Air Force will use a $3.4 million federal grant to protect more than 4,500 acres of high-priority land necessary to maintain training airspace for the Dare County Bombing Range -- the primary training range for F-15E aircraft crews at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

It will do so through a voluntary program placing conservation easements on crop and forest land under the military training route approaching the Dare County Bombing Range.

North Carolina topped nine other states in the competition to win the $9.2 million federal grant to protect land from development while maintaining agricultural, forestry and military uses.

The Marine Corps will use the other $5.8 million to establish an easement and to support the creation of habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker on more than 12,100 acres of state-owned land. This will free up Marine Corps lands for training.

Agriculture and agribusiness comprise North Carolina's largest industry, with an annual economic impact of $84 billion. The military is second at $66 billion.

The funding, announced Tuesday in Raleigh, was awarded through a biennial competition known as the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Challenge, which is operated by the Department of Defense's Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program.

The Dare County Bombing Range is also used by F/A-18 squadrons operating out of Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia.

The range is an electronic combat, day-night and air-to-ground training site critical to multiple installations and Army and Navy special operations teams (including SEALs).

"Just consider them (military training routes) highways in the air that the military aircraft fly," said Dewitt Hardee, director of Farmland Preservation Programs, N.C. Department of Agriculture. "They go up and down in height. In the counties near the Dare County Range, the jets may be flying at only a few hundred feet. That is the reason for needing the land to remain in agriculture or forestry with no high structures or upward lighting that might blind the pilots.

"One note, the Dare County Range is the only training facility on the East Coast where the Navy, Marines, Air Force, etc. can train from both land and sea approaches."

The land parcels surrounding the range are privately owned, and the landowners have voluntarily indicated they are willing to negotiate for an agricultural conservation easement to be placed on their land that restricts impediments that endanger the training ability of the pilots, Hardee said.

"The conservation easement would require the land to continue being managed with conservation oversight and allowing the land to be used for agricultural or forestry production," Hardee said.

The funding will be administered through the armed services located in the state, he said.

Each Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration grant dollar used must also be matched by either a N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Agricultural Development Farmland Protection Trust Fund dollar or another partnering funding sources such as the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Agricultural Land Easements where compatible, he said.

"The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Farmland Preservation staff will be working with the landowners and partners to match up the best compatible resources to achieve the recording and placement of the agricultural conservation easement on the target land parcels," Hardee said.

House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro represented the House at the Tuesday announcement

Bell said he used a phrase from fellow Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Mount Olive during the ceremony that "any time food and freedom are combined, it is a good day for North Carolina."

"A couple of things to take away from it (grant) is it was a collaborative effort with a number of different folks going after it," he said. "The big deal is it provides funding for us to work, while partnering with agriculture while making sure farmers are able to maintain their land and grow crops. At the same time it helps preserve our military training ground and helps with encroachment issues."

It encourages farmers to stay on the land rather than selling out to things that could be detrimental to military interests, Bell said.

The state received all of the money allotted for the grant, which demonstrates "how big a deal" the projects are, Bell said.

In 2016, the federal government designated 33 counties, including Wayne County, as the Eastern North Carolina Sentinel Landscape Partnership.

The designation is part of a joint partnership between the federal departments of Agriculture, Interior and Defense that aims to strengthen farms, ranches and forests while conserving habitat and natural resources and protecting vital training grounds for military installations. North Carolina is the only state to have multiple military branches, military installations and counties named as part of the designation.

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Defense and the Interior launched the Sentinel Landscapes Partnership initiative in 2013 to address top priority encroachment concerns identified by the military, including restrictions related to species conservation and potential development of privately owned agriculture, forest and open space lands.

"The Sentinel Landscape Partnership will use this grant to protect farms and forests that are vital to relieving encroachment on military training areas and airspace," Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said during the announcement. "Working with willing landowners, this effort will establish conservation easements and management programs on high-priority lands to the benefit of both agriculture and the military, North Carolina's two largest industries."

The funding and related work of the Sentinel Landscape Partnership will help both industries, Troxler said.

"The partnership will help ensure that farmers and foresters maintain their livelihoods, wildlife habitats and natural resources are protected, and compatible uses for military training and operations are provided," he said.