Vilsack, Stabenow seek 'partners' for new conservation program

By Breanne Brammer

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WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow on Tuesday unveiled a new five-year conservation program that seeks to double a $1.2 billion government investment into $2.4 billion through public-private partnerships.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will competitively award funds to projects specifically designed by local partners for their region. Companies, universities, non-profits, local and tribal governments and others can all bid for the grant money, while pledging matching funds. Vilsack said $400 million is available in USDA funding in the first year.

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“This is an entirely new approach to conservation,” Vilsack said in a conference call with reporters. “We're giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations. By establishing new public-private partnerships, we can have an impact that's well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own. These efforts keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries.”

Vilsack spoke from Bay City in Stabenow's home state of Michigan, near Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, where nutrient runoff from agriculture has hurt water quality. Stabenow, a Democrat, said she expects the area to generate several funding proposals.

RCPP will streamline four programs (the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion) into one.

Under the plan, 35 percent of total funding will be directed to critical conservation areas, chosen by the agriculture secretary. An additional 40 percent will go toward regional or multi-state projects through a competitive national process. And 25 percent is earmarked for state-level projects through a competitive process established by state leaders in the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)..

Dan Wrinn, public policy director for Ducks Unlimited, said the conservation group is pleased with today's announcement.

“We want to create opportunities for farmers and ranchers to continue doing what they do best while at the same time promoting conservation efforts,” Wrinn said.

For smaller conservation groups like those that make up the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the technical assistance portion of the conservation program is essential. Greg Fogel, NSAC senior policy specialist, said the provision allows partners to apply for technical assistance funds, which can be used for outreach, monitoring and education initiatives.

Stabenow played a major role in forging the 2014 Farm Bill, which authorized the conservation program.

“This is the first farm bill where we are supporting agriculture and natural resources through the conservation title rather than the commodity title,” she said. “This is a significant shift on how we view agriculture.”

Initial proposals for the program are due July 14.

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