USDA announces $235 million available for conservation partnerships

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, May 4, 2015 - USDA's Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will continue into its second year in 2016 with a budget of $235 million. The 2014 Farm Bill program allocates federal dollars, with the expectation that those funds will be matched by private investment, to conservation projects across the country that are focused on improving water quality, combating drought, enhancing soil health and supporting wildlife habitat within working landscapes.

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“This is a new, innovative approach to conservation,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release following his agency's announcement. “This initiative allows local partners the opportunity to design and invest in conservation projects specifically tailored for their communities (and) to have an impact that's well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own.”

RCPP projects are developed and implemented by local partnership groups comprised of industry stakeholders - including agricultural retailers and farm organizations - local and tribal governments, non-profit organizations, universities and private landowners.

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Earlier this year, during the program's 2014-2015 funding cycle, 115 conservation partnership projects across all 50 states and Puerto Rico were awarded portions of $394 million in federal contribution, which the project's partners were required to leverage, dollar for dollar, in private investment. For 2016 project proposals, the same rules apply, but Vilsack told reporters today there would be some changes.

“We learned a lot from that first go around,” he said during a Denver press conference. “We need to limit the grant amount to no more than $10 million, and that would be both technical and financial assistance value,” he began. Partners will need to identify the amount of technical assistance they require from NRCS in their grant proposals. NRCS will correct payment eligibility and limitation issues and USDA will try to “speed up the process” of awarding grants so that resources are on-the-ground and working faster, Vilsack said.

He also noted that there would be “some adjustments” to eligibility for projects that lay just outside of critical conservation areas (CCAs) - one of three pools of grants RCPP partnerships can apply for - “to make sure that they aren't disqualified” from receiving CCA funding.

Project pre-proposals for 2016 are due July 8. Partnerships must specify which funding category - CCA, state or national - they wish to apply for in their applications.

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