Conservation funding enters new era

Over $370M awarded for 115 Regional Conservation Partnership Programs.

The days of just handing out money to local farmers directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken a change for the better, with the first full national rollout of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program which doled out $372.5 million nationally on Jan. 14.

A total of 115 high-impact projects have been chosen in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. These projects will leverage an estimated $400 million more in partner contributions—for a total of nearly $800 million—to improve the nation's water quality, support wildlife habitat and enhance the environment.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shared the projects include 21 in critical conservation areas and another 70 state projects. In addition, 70% of the projects funded address water quality such as flood prevention or improved nutrient management. An additional 24% of the resources offer ways to improve habitat for wildlife.

Natural Resources Conservation Service chief Jason Weller said RCCP “turns inside out the traditional federal approach” of giving federal money to try to fix a problem as all federal money is at least matched by private funds.

He said RCCP empowers local community partnerships and local land owners to identify what their needs are and then it provides an opportunity to invite to the table traditional partners such as state agencies and conservation groups as well as new partners to design and deliver solutions. New organizations now able to participate include ag and farm commodity groups, dairy cooperatives, water utilities, ag retailers and farm elevators.  

"As venture capitalists provide financial resources to burgeoning, high-potential growth startups, USDA must lead in a new venture conservationist movement that empowers and launches new, high-opportunity startup partnerships that deliver locally-led conservation solutions," said Weller. "RCPP puts our partners in the driver's seat. Projects are led locally, and demonstrate the value of strong public-private partnerships that deliver solutions to natural resource challenges."

RCPP competitively awards funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives.

Vilsack added that on average 11 partners participate in each project and some approved projects have as many as 46 partners. He said RCPP brings together partnerships on the ground and at local and regional areas with those who are directly engaged in identifying what has to be done. He said pilot projects in the Chesapeake Bay and Upper Mississippi River Basin have shown that a more coordinated approach in a larger watershed offers significant greater impacts in terms of soil health and water quality.

Weller noted that RCPP allows partners to be creative whether it’s through easements, nutrient management planning or buffs and design solutions that target actions and provide real results at a bigger scale.

In the new budget environment of conservation programs usually getting the short end of the stick in funding debates, Vilsack said RCPP becomes the way for the federal government to be more efficient and effective in meeting conservation goals.

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