Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico will receive more than $370 million in Federal funding as part of the new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). In addition, these projects will leverage an estimated $400 million more in partner contributions—for a total of nearly $800 million—to improve the nation's water quality, support wildlife habitat and enhance the environment. Vilsack made the announcement near Phoenix, where the new program will invest in a project with five local partners to clean and conserve water along the Verde River, a tributary of the Colorado River.
"This is an entirely new approach to conservation efforts," said Vilsack. "These partnerships empower communities to set priorities and lead the way on conservation efforts important for their region. They also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that's well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own. We're giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in a new era in conservation that ultimately benefits us all. These efforts keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism, outdoor recreation, and other industries."
"As venture capitalists provide financial resources to burgeoning, high-potential growth startups, USDA must lead in a new venture conservationist movement that empowers and launches new, high-opportunity startup partnerships that deliver locally-led conservation solutions," said Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller. "RCPP puts our partners in the driver's seat. Projects are led locally, and demonstrate the value of strong public-private partnerships that deliver solutions to natural resource challenges."
RCPP competitively awards funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. Eligible partners include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives. With participating partners investing along with the Department, USDA's $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year Farm Bill program can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion for conservation. Through RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat, and other related natural resources on private lands.
In addition to supporting local conservation goals, clean land and water investments create jobs in local communities. Conservation work involves building and maintaining infrastructure, such as building terraces in fields or restoring wetlands, which requires the hiring of contractors, engineers, scientists, and others. A 2013 study commissioned by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation estimates that conservation activities supported more than 660,000 jobs. Conservation also provides an economic boost by spurring local tourism. Cleaner water and enhanced wildlife habitat provide additional opportunities for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation. The outdoor recreation economy supports 6.1 million direct jobs, $80 billion in federal, state, and local tax revenue, and $646 billion in spending each year.
The RCPP project in Arizona that Secretary Vilsack announced today will help restore habitat for fish and wildlife along the Verde River and encourage more sustainable use of water in the area. The Nature Conservancy will work with NRCS and Friends of Verde River Greenway, Verde Natural Resource Conservation District, Arizona Game and Fish Department and Tamarisk Coalition to enhance 6,000 acres of riparian habitat and improve irrigation on 1,000 farmland acres.
A complete list of the projects and their descriptions is available on the NRCS website.
New RCPP projects throughout the country will support a wide array of agricultural and natural resource activities, from helping farmers improve their drought resiliency to protecting drinking water supplies. They are also providing habitat for many at-risk species such as sage grouse and supporting the expansion of environmental markets. All of these investments will benefit ranching and farming operations that will in turn help address natural resource needs.
More than 600 pre-proposals were submitted for RCPP in 2014.
"With so many strong project proposals, the selection process was extremely competitive. RCPP is a 5-year, $1.2 billion USDA opportunity. Projects not selected in this first year may be eligible in subsequent years," Chief Weller said. The Chief also noted that NRCS personnel will work with applicants who did not receive funding during this round of awards to strengthen their applications for future funding rounds. The next announcement of program funding for fiscal year 2016 will be made later in the year. Today's announcement includes funding allocated for the first two years of the program.
Today's announcement was made possible by the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill builds on historic economic gains in rural America over the past five years, while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for taxpayers. Since enactment, USDA has made significant progress to implement each provision of this critical legislation, including providing disaster relief to farmers and ranchers; strengthening risk management tools; expanding access to rural credit; funding critical research; establishing innovative public-private conservation partnerships; developing new markets for rural-made products; and investing in infrastructure, housing and community facilities to help improve quality of life.