New conservation program announced
A common refrain in the West is that government needs to step aside and allow local and private interests to come to a marketbased solution to environmental issues. A new conservation effort might be among the first government programs that takes such concepts to heart.
Last Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the launch of a new conservation program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The new program seeks to involve private businesses and landowners in the conservation effort. The USDA, through the 2014 farm bill, will invest $1.2 billion in the program over five years, and hopes that other stakeholders—state and local governments, tribes, water districts, private industry, landowners, universities and nonprofit groups—will match the investment for a total of $2.4 billion.
In the first year, roughly $400 million will be made available.
“We are very, very excited about this opportunity,” said Vilsack during last Tuesday’s media call-in conference that unveiled the project to the public. “It does, I think, represent a watershed moment in conservation in this country.”
Generally speaking, the RCPP will be a means of targeting conservation efforts—and funds—in a way that prioritizes specific atrisk regions and landscapes on a larger scale than traditional farm- or field-specific conservation efforts have utilized. Additionally, RCPP will allow local knowledge greater leverage and public/ private partnerships feature heavily in the project’s plan. Finally, there is a competitive element to conservation proposals and funding being granted. Much like applying for grants, eligible stakeholders can submit conservation proposals and they will be assessed and awarded funding on a merit and need (based on prioritized regions) rather than on a first-come, first-served system.
“The size of the project is not key,” stressed Vilsack. “What is key are results. And that’s what also makes this different than past efforts in terms of conservation. This is going to be very focused on measureable results. There’s going to be accountability with this program. There’s no question about it. We’re going to be looking for innovative approaches, approaches that have never been tried before, partnerships that have never been developed before.”
Additionally, as part of the ongoing effort to streamline governmental activities, RCPP combine four existing conservation programs: the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program; Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative; the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative; and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion.
“This is an entirely new approach to conservation,” Vilsack was quoted in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS’) official announcement of the project.
“We’re giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations. By establishing new publicprivate partnerships, we can have an impact that’s well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own. These efforts keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries.”
Funding and priorities
As mentioned, funding is broken down into different regional perspectives and priority is given to certain landscapes over others. According to the conference presentation, as well as RCPP’s official website, the total annual budget for the program will be broken out into three groups: • 40 percent to national/ multi-state projects;
• 35 percent to critical conservation area projects; and
• 25 percent to state projects.
There are eight critical conservation areas:
• Great Lakes Region
• Chesapeake Bay Watershed
• Mississippi River Basin
• Longleaf Pine Range
• Columbia River Basin
• California Bay Delta
• Prairie Grasslands
• Colorado River Basin
“Eight significant regions in the country, which impact and effect water quality, water quantity, and habitat,” said Vilsack. “All landscapes could be qualifying for this and we’re looking forward to receiving a lot of competitive applications.”
The funding was provided for in the 2014 farm bill. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who was one of the speakers at the media conference, pointed out that the funding allocations of this farm bill are unique with respect to conservation.
“It is very significant that this is the first farm bill where we are supporting agriculture and supporting our natural resources through the conservation title with more dollars than the commodity title. So this is a significant shift in terms of how we support agriculture and farmers and ranchers, and how we view managing private land—which is the majority of the land in our country—through partnerships.”
Stabenow stressed how such funding is necessary as it gives farmers and ranchers risk management tools as the country—both government and public sentiment— move away from a subsidy approach in agriculture.
The RCPP was “live” as of last Tuesday following the announcements. Interested landowners or eligible stakeholder groups—which includes agricultural producer associations, farmer cooperatives or other groups of producers, state or local governments, American Indian tribes, municipal water treatment entities, water and irrigation districts, conservation-driven nongovernmental organizations, institutions of higher education, and those seeking to partner with the above—should visit the RCPP website at nrcs. usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/ main/national/programs/ farmbill/rcpp/ A more general hub of conservation programs for agricultural producers can be found online at nrcs.usda. gov/getstarted/ The NRCS is now accepting proposals for this program. Pre-proposals are due July 14, and full proposals are due Sept. 26. More information on the proposal process can be found online at either of the above links. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor