$720 Million for Conservation Projects
Effective natural resource conservation often depends on the power of partnerships. Through the collaboration of governmental, non-profit, and private partners we have seen significant advances in conservation on agricultural lands over the last several years. Since the creation of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in the 2014 Farm Bill and its predecessors in early farm bills, collaborations by government and non-profit partners working with farmers and ranchers have increased dramatically in size and scope.
On Friday, February 12, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that, through the 2016 iteration of RCPP, USDA will invest $220 million in 84 conservation projects that will leverage an additional $500 million from a variety of local partners, including state agencies and non-governmental organizations.
Interest in the conservation partnership concept is sky high. Approximately 265 applicants requested nearly $900 million from the program this cycle, nearly four times the amount of available federal funding.
RCPP, administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is unique among farm bill conservation programs because farmers and ranchers do not apply directly to the program for funding. Instead, partner entities (generally, non-profit groups, conservation districts, or other state or local agencies) design and submit project proposals. Once approved by NRCS, farmers and ranchers can then apply to participate in the projects.
NRCS and its partner groups provide financial and technical assistance to farmers to implement conservation activities to help tackle priority natural resource concerns in a given project area. Some RCPP projects, for example, might focus on specific resource issues of heightened concern in a defined locale, while others may focus on a set or type of farmers in a particular area who are interested in pursuing innovative conservation objectives.
In the 2016 cycle more than half of all RCPP projects will focus on issues of water quality and availability, such as the continued drought in California and algal bloom in the Great Lakes, underscoring the mounting interest in and concern around water conservation.
2016 RCPP Overview
- RCPP will fund projects in all 50 states and cover all eight Critical Conservation Areas.
- 84 proposals were approved in the 2016 cycle from a list of 265 pre-proposals, a proposal acceptance rate of just over 30 percent.
- 50 percent of the projects were chosen at the state-level, 18 percent were selected by NRCS national headquarters, and 16 percent of the projects target Critical Conservation Areas.
- Natural Resources Breakdown: The portfolio of conservation activities targeted by RCPP projects includes air quality, plant health, soil health, wildlife habitat, water quantity (drought), and water quality. The top two areas covered by projects in 2016 will be water quality (34 percent) and wildlife habitat (25 percent).
For additional program statistics, download the RCPP fact sheet.
We are thrilled that NSAC member organization, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), has received an RCPP award this year to advance a five-year project on land management through rotational grazing in Mississippi. Through the NCAT project, Mississippi livestock producers will receive technical and financial assistance to help them transition their operations to sustainable grazing systems. Farmers recruited to join this project will include small livestock producers of small and large ruminants, as well as experienced graziers searching for alternatives to ensure their livestock operations remain viable. These farmers will be introduced to a variety of new grazing techniques including: season-long continuous grazing, rest-rotation grazing, deferred-rotation grazing, intensively managed grazing, and utilizing local forage varieties.
The NCAT project will also create a group of “pasture innovators”, ranchers who will specialize in using unique grazing practices tailored to specific breeds of livestock in Mississippi. NCAT will help producers connect to a network of peers to support creative and innovative approaches in long-term planning for sustainable grazing methods.
Another worthwhile project is being undertaken by a large coalition of partners in New Mexico, led by the New Mexico Acequia Association, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and the New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts. The New Mexico partnership will receive $3 million for a unique project to improve local irrigation infrastructure while supporting local community development.
New Mexico boasts a long history of community-operated irrigation systems, known as acequias. This project will help restore acequias on agriculture lands, supporting local, underserved communities while improving water conservation by minimizing surface water loss, increasing irrigation efficiency, and improving water quality on agricultural lands. Congratulations to the Acequia Association!
The full list of 2016 projects can be downloaded from the NRCS website.
The 2014 Farm Bill created RCPP by consolidating four previously separate programs: the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), and Great Lakes Conservation Initiative (GLCI).
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP retains $100 million per year in existing funding from AWEP and CBWI. In addition, RCPP pulls 7 percent of funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP).
Because RCPP pulls funding from CSP, EQIP, ACEP, and HFRP, cuts to the underlying programs mean cuts to RCPP. Unfortunately, the final FY16 appropriations package, which Congress passed in December, severely cut EQIP funding. This resulted in a $37.5 million cut to RCPP.
RCPP is a high demand program with a small funding allocation; therefore any cuts to funding have a significant impact on the implementation of conservation projects. NSAC vehemently opposes cuts to mandatory funding for conservation programs during the annual appropriations process and will continue to fight against them during the FY17 funding process, which is just beginning.
The President’s budget proposal unveiled earlier this week contained good news – no proposals to cut farm bill conservation programs. We will urge Congress to follow suit.