THE U.S. Department of Agriculture should consider designating the Lower Mississippi River Valley as a critical conservation area (CCA) to more efficiently promote soil, water and habitat conservation programs on a regional level, according to Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.).
Cochran, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said he would support a CCA designation that includes the Lower Mississippi River Valley region.
The Lower Mississippi River Valley generally stretches from southern Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico and includes the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois.
The comments came as the Senate subcommittee on agriculture began its review of the fiscal 2015 budget for USDA and the agency's implementation of the 2014 farm bill.
"Regional partnerships have proven useful in Mississippi and on the Gulf Coast. The Lower Mississippi River Valley should receive serious consideration for a designation as a critical conservation area," said Cochran, who also met with representatives of the Mississippi Association of Conservation Districts on March 26.
"Mississippi conservation districts are among those groups who historically have worked well to adopt effective tools to address natural resource problems and improve wildlife habitat. They can be important players under the cost-cutting reforms built into the farm bill," he said.
Cochran submitted questions to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding the timeline and process USDA intends to use in designating the eight CCAs authorized in the farm bill as part of the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
The farm bill, enacted in early February, consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13 reformed programs and saves more than $6.0 billion over 10 years. As part of this effort, the law creates the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which encourages collaborative conservation projects with federal, state and private partners. It also authorizes the secretary of agriculture to designate eight CCAs to receive targeted program funding.
"The creation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program offers an opportunity for regions like the Lower Mississippi River Valley to build upon existing partnerships and to provide agricultural producers and landowners the necessary tools to address critical natural resource issues related to soil health, water quality and quantity and wildlife habitat on a watershed scale while also supporting a diverse regional economy," Cochran said.