USDA launches $1.2 billion in competitive grants for conservation projects

McClatchy Washington BureauMay 29, 2014 

— The federal government is taking a new approach to conservation with a $1.2 billion program in the Farm Bill that will include competitive grants for soil and water improvements in eight regions, including the longleaf pine forests of North Carolina and other Southern states, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Thursday.

“This is a new day,” Vilsack said in an interview.

In the past, conservation money has gone to individual farmers and other landowners. While that work will continue, The U.S. Department of Agriculture is adding a regional program aimed at encouraging companies, universities, conservation groups and communities to invest along with the federal government in innovative conservation projects, he said.

The federal government will make the $1.2 billion available over the next five years and expects that the other partners will match it, Vilsack said. While there have been regional grants over the past five years, he said this will be the first time the program will operate on a national scale.

The money will be divided so that 35 percent goes to the eight regional conservation areas. USDA plans to build on its existing partnerships to improve the profitability and sustainability of privately owned longleaf pine forests. The trees covered 3.4 million acres in the South in 2010, down from what once was 90 million acres.

The other seven conservation regions are the Columbia, Mississippi and Colorado river basins, the Prairie Grasslands and Great Lakes regions, the California Bay Delta and the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

In addition, 40 percent of the money for the new program will go to regional projects through a nationally competitive grant program, and 25 percent will go to states, where agencies will run their own competitive process to determine how to use the grants.

Vilsack said that the department’s traditional approach of giving conservation funds to individual landowners and farmers would continue to make up the bulk of its conservation work. But he said the new competitive grants were expected to encourage investments that would improve habitat, expand outdoor tourism and add jobs.

“One of the results of this will be that not every project is going to get funded,” the Agriculture secretary said. “But when people spend the time and resources to put together a strategic plan for a region and focus on a set of projects, the likelihood is once they’ve done that work they’re not going to put it on the shelf. They’re going to find out locally how to fund it, and next year in another round of funding they might be more competitive.”

In Missouri, for example, grants would go for such things as preventing farmland floods and making sure farmers have enough water in dry times. California and Texas are expected to use the money to find ways to use water more effectively in order to reduce the damage from long-term droughts.

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