PAST conservation program funding mostly rewarded those farmers who signed up and enrolled first; a new approach enacted in the 2014 farm bill will move beyond just targeting conservation efforts at the field and farm levels and instead will provide the opportunity to make improvements at the watershed and landscape levels, according to Sean McMahon, North American agriculture program director at The Nature Conservancy.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and others May 27 to launch new conservation efforts through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) and made a call for the cooperative ideas to start flowing.
Stabenow said she expects to see "very significant improvements in our land based on locally driven, broad-based partnership efforts."
RCPP streamlines conservation efforts by combining four programs — the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion — into one.
The critical conservation areas Vilsack announced are: the Great Lakes region, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Mississippi River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta, prairie grasslands and Colorado River Basin (Map).
RCPP will competitively award funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, nonprofit organizations, local and tribal governments and others that join with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials in their proposed initiatives.
RCPP has three funding pools:
1. 35% of total program funding directed to critical conservation areas chosen by the agriculture secretary;
2. 40% directed to regional or multistate projects through a national competitive process, and
3. 25% directed to state-level projects through a competitive process established by state Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) leaders.
USDA is now accepting proposals for this program. Pre-proposals are due July 14, and full proposals are due Sept. 26, with NRCS making final selections by Oct. 27.
Partners will be required to cover a significant portion of the overall cost of the project, including in-kind services. In fact, 30% of a proposal's ranking score will be based on an assessment of the partner's contribution.
NRCS will assess both the amount of funding a partner will bring to the table as well as the extent and type of in-kind activities, such as outreach and education, the partners will contribute.
With the added investment from participating partners, USDA's $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year conservation program can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion. Already, USDA has made $400 million in funding available in the first year.
Through RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, wildlife habitat and other related natural resources on private lands.
McMahon said the new approach ushers in a new era of public/private partnerships like never before, with businesses, conservationists, agricultural associations, communities, municipal water entities, universities and others able to band together to address the biggest conservation challenges.
The result, McMahon said, will be the potential to achieve conservation outcomes at a scale that can move the needle on environmental concerns as well as provide the greatest return to taxpayers.
Diane Holdorf, chief sustainability officer at The Kellogg Co., explained that the effort moves beyond just a project-by-project, farm-by-farm approach. Instead, it allows cooperation among critical stakeholders, the government, those in the supply chain and non-governmental organizations to identify problems and find solutions at the local level.
"RCPP is unique among conservation programs in its focus on targeted, project-based partnerships," added Greg Fogel, senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "Through RCPP, non-federal partners will bring their vast expertise to the table to help NRCS engage farmers and facilitate project implementation, including outreach, education, monitoring and reporting."
According to Jill Kostel, senior environmental engineer for The Wetlands Initiative in Chicago, Ill., and co-chair of the Mississippi River Network's Steering Committee, "Public/private partnerships such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program provide additional support and assistance to producers and landowners interested in reducing nutrient runoff from their land and, ultimately, improving water quality downstream in the Mississippi River."
In addition to providing direct assistance to producers to implement conservation activities as part of an RCPP project, the announcement clarifies that RCPP funds also may be directed to partners for a variety of technical assistance activities, including resource assessment, conservation practice survey and design, conservation planning and resource monitoring, among others.