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USDA Expands Conservation Partnerships

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Tuesday that a new farm bill conservation program will make some $400 million available over the next few months for private groups that will join the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in improving soil and water resources on private lands.

The 2014 farm bill created the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to target resources where they're needed most and to leverage tax dollars with private funds. Over the five years the law is in effect, some $1.2 billion are mandated for the RCPP. "Our belief is that we can match that" with private contributions and technical assistance, Vilsack said at an announcement in Bay City, Michigan, where he was joined by Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), the Chief Sustainability Officer at The Kellogg Company Diane Holdorf, and Sean McMahon, North American Agriculture Program Director at The Nature Conservancy.

Private groups, which could include municipal water utilities, universities, and farm organizations, will apply for funds with grant proposals. Vilsack said he hopes that USDA will be able to announce the final choices by mid-October. After that, farmers, ranchers, and private forest owners will be able to apply for cost sharing.

Vilsack was asked how an appropriations bill from the House of Representatives that trims spending on mandatory conservation funds will affect the RCPP, which draws from several traditional conservation programs. Vilsack said that the farm bill requires that 7% of funds for EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) and 7% of CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program) must be directed toward the RCPP. The House Appropriations Committee aims to reduce funding for both programs, which Vilsack said, "would have some small impact."

Stabenow said she hopes that when the Senate appropriations bill is reconciled with the House version in a conference committee later this year that some of those funds will be restored.

"I was quite stunned that the House appropriators, even when they did not have to, chose to make significant cuts in conservation," she told reporters in a press conference. "What we did in the farm bill was important. It took a lot of time to get done. It was strongly bipartisan."

The new regional partnership program targets 35% of its funds to eight "Critical Conservation Areas," including two that overlap in the western Corn Belt - the Mississippi River Basin and the Prairie Grasslands Region.

McMahon, with the Nature Conservancy, praised Vilsack and the former head of the NRCS for administratively starting regional approaches to conservation with the Mississippi River Basin Initiative under the 2008 farm bill. Nothing in the old farm bill told them to do that, he said. "They really stuck their necks out."

McMahon said he was pleased that Stabenow was able to make regional programs permanent in the 2014 law.

The new program drew praise from both traditional conservation groups such as the National Association of Conservation Districts as well as newer players such as the Environmental Defense Fund.

"Conservation districts have always supported a collaborative, locally-led approach to getting conservation implemented on the ground, and this new program falls right in line with this approach," said NACD President Earl Garber. "The concept of partnering to accomplish the delivery of conservation is not new. Soil and Water Conservation Districts were established on the state and local level since the 1930s to partner in the delivery of federal funds based on local priorities. The RCPP program expands our opportunities to reach a higher level of commitment to conservation delivery on the working landscape in America."

At EDF, David Festa, vice president for West Coast and Land, Water, Wildlife, said, "This marks a new era in American conservation efforts, as it will expand opportunities for agricultural producers to keep working lands healthy while reducing impacts on climate, wildlife habitat, and water. Particularly, this designation helps fill a critical need across the Colorado River Basin for improved irrigation infrastructure and efficiencies that benefit the producer’s bottom line and provide potential to keep more water in rivers."

Stabenow pointed out Tuesday that, for the first time, the 2014 farm bill will support agriculture with more money from the conservation title of the law than from the commodity title.

More information can be found at the USDA's RCPP web page.

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