The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced close to $800 million in funding for locally led solutions to regional conservation challenges via its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The five-year, $1.2 billion federal program was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill to award funds to projects that improve soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, and wildlife habitat, as well as activities that otherwise support natural resources on private lands. In 2015, USDA has awarded $370 million to 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, which will be bolstered by approximately $400 million from stakeholders. TRCP is a proud partner of the following 2015 RCPP project leads: Ducks Unlimited, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited.
To read more about RCPP projects improving water use efficiency, click here.
When presented with 115 high-impact projects of all shapes and sizes, funneling about $800 million entirely into conservation…it’s difficult to name favorites. Thankfully, many of the just-announced Regional Conservation Partnership Program projects, such as the three examples below, stand out by their effort to balance the needs of production agriculture with the needs of fish and wildlife. RCPP shows that farming and conservation work better together.
Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program National Demonstration Project
USDA has awarded $9 million to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to help roll out to other states an innovative new pilot program. MAWQCP provides regulatory certainty to farmers who voluntarily enroll every single acre—crop and non-crop—of their farm operation in comprehensive water quality conservation planning for 10 years. In other words, program participants will automatically be declared in compliance with all new state water quality laws and rules that take effect during the next decade.
The idea of regulatory certainty might seem like “inside baseball,” but farmers and sportsmen alike should pay attention. If successful, Agricultural Water Quality Certification will be lauded as a win-win solution and held up as a model program for conservation on private lands. It will surely please those who champion working lands and tight government budgets; certification offers landowners freedom from increased regulation rather than the financial incentives usually offered for single-site, single-practice conservation. On the other hand, those who love fish and wildlife will have assurance that their state’s farmers are working long-term on a large scale for healthy soils and clean waters. These decade-long, whole-farm solutions could inspire creative new opportunities for conservation.
Delaware River Watershed Working Lands Conservation Protection Partnership
Here is a perfect example of the public-private partnership RCPP was intended to foster. USDA awarded $13 million to help restore the Delaware River, matching an $18 million private-sector investment in the long term health of the watershed. That’s $31 million for working lands conservation in the region—far more than either the government or private actors would be able to commit alone. Experts will provide over 1,200 farmers and forest landowners with technical assistance to restore fish and wildlife habitat and funds to protect working agricultural and forest lands from development.
Therein lies the key theme that runs throughout the new RCPP: while much of USDA’s past conservation focus has been on individual farms, RCPP enables multiple actors to rally around landscape-scale programs to achieve greater impact. That’s an organizational model that TRCP can stand behind.
Rice Stewardship Partnership—Sustaining the Future of Rice
Lastly, we shine a spotlight on “Sustaining the Future of Rice” for its ambitious scope: this project will span six states from California to Mississippi, involve more than 40 partners, and employ $10 million in RCPP funds to help 800 rice producers conserve waterfowl habitat.
A recent Ducks Unlimited study found that rice lands in the project regions provide more than 35 percent of the food resources available to wintering dabbling ducks, and that over 50 percent of all dabbling ducks that winter in the U.S. do so in the project regions. (These statistics don’t even count the benefits that these working wetlands provide to geese and other animals and fish.) Unfortunately, rice landscapes are threatened by limited water in drought-stricken California, changing agricultural practices, and long-term declines in rice acreage on the Gulf Coast. The key to observing and hunting waterfowl across the continent may depend on the future of rice, and we salute the Rice Stewardship Partnership for taking up the challenge.
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Over two-thirds of our nation’s land—including some of the most important fish and wildlife habitat—is in private hands, and the downstream effects of conservation practices on those lands can be profound. Through initiatives such as the RCPP, farmers and foresters are every day enhancing opportunities for hunters, anglers, and wildlife enthusiasts of all stripes. We look forward to enjoying the results.
Want more on RCPP? Check out this handy USDA infographic here.