There has certainly been some ongoing frustration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the ag community and sportsmen, but “The People’s Department” continues to put out good news for private lands conservation. By investing in partnerships with landowners, producers, ranchers, and foresters, the USDA is directly supporting sportsmen’s access and opportunity. Here’s how:
With One Million Acres and Counting
USDA just enrolled land in La Moure County, North Dakota, in the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement initiative, bringing the nationwide SAFE acreage total across the one-million-acre mark. Val Dolcini, the USDA official who oversees the program, sums it up best: “SAFE began in 2007 as an offshoot [of the Conservation Reserve Program] to focus on establishing key plant species that help not just soil and water, but also are beneficial to selected rural wildlife habitat. And, as it enhances the flora and fauna of the countryside, it can also create recreational opportunities for the sportsman, which is an investment in the rural economy as well.” SAFE is helping private landowners across 36 states and Puerto Rico to provide habitat for the fish and game species we love.
With $235 Million Available for Conservation Partnerships
Earlier this year, USDA announced the first round of RCPP awards—we highlighted a few of the projects here and here. Now, the agency is ready to receive the next round of applications, in which private partners will propose to match over $200 million in USDA funds dollar-for-dollar—meaning there will be more than $400 million worth of new projects to improve soil health, water quality, water-use efficiency, and wildlife habitat on private lands. For this round, USDA is specifically targeting projects that respond to the western drought, develop environmental markets (i.e. water trading or wetland mitigation banks), and combat climate change. These types of projects might not seem relevant to sportsmen at first, but when you read reports about the domino effect the drought is having on California’s wildlife, or the shocking rate of habitat loss over the last decade, it becomes more clear that these seemingly unrelated initiatives can have a cascade effect on our sporting heritage.
By Cleaning Up Waterways in Mississippi River Basin States
USDA will invest $10 million this year across 11 states to improve water quality and habitat and restore wetlands that feed into the Mississippi River. Importantly, the resulting projects will enhance productivity for farmers and foresters throughout the watershed, which is absolutely essential if we hope to encourage more landowners and managers to put conservation on their acreage. But sportsmen of all stripes can also cheer the move: The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative will directly safeguard fish habitat in dozens of inland watersheds, conserve waterfowl habitat up and down the Mississippi Flyway, and reduce the amount of farm runoff flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, which is necessary to restore healthy saltwater recreational fisheries.
The USDA is said to be “helping people help the land,” and we can see why. Especially in the eastern U.S., where the majority of wildlife habitat is on private lands, these voluntary public-private partnerships are an essential piece of the puzzle for quality sportsmen’s access.