Private companies, universities, non-profits and local communities have partnered with the USDA in funding 115 conservation projects announced Wednesday and authorized through the new USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
The projects, located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, will receive $370 million in Federal funding and about $400 million from funding partners to enhance water quality, support wildlife and improve the environment.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the program is a "new approach" to conservation efforts, noting the "partners" – local communities, non-profits, universities and private companies – facilitate leadership on important regional conservation issues.
"[Partnerships] also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that's well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own," he said.
Vilsack said the projects promote economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism, outdoor recreation, and other industries.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller compared the program to a venture capitalist model.
"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," Weller said.
With participating partners investing along with the Department, USDA said the $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year 2014 Farm Bill program can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion for conservation.
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The funding is meant to not only spur environmental improvements, but also jobs. 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, it found, on account of better 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, USDA said.
More than 600 pre-proposals were submitted for RCPP in 2014. Funding is competitively awarded.
Because the program spans the life of the 2014 Farm Bill, NRCS Chief Weller said projects not selected this year may be eligible in subsequent years.
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. This initial announcement includes funding allocated for the first two years of the program, USDA said.
A complete list of the first-year RCPP projects and their descriptions is available on the NRCS website.