May 27, 2014
On Tuesday, May 27, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued an Announcement of Program Funding (APF) for the newly created Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). As its name implies, the RCPP allows for partnerships of farm and conservation organizations working with state and federal agencies to deliver federal farm bill conservation assistance to farmers to help tackle specific natural resource and environmental concerns in a specific state or region.
Partners can develop and submit pre-proposals until July 14. NRCS will select pre-proposals by July 28. Full proposals are due by September 26, with NRCS making final selections by October 27. Farmers apply to participate in a project once project areas have been determined.
NRCS anticipates that for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, nearly $400 million will be available through RCPP.
The 2014 Farm Bill created RCPP by consolidating four previously separate programs from earlier farm bills: the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), and Great Lakes Conservation Initiative (GLCI). NSAC developed the initial policy proposal to consolidate CCPI and AWEP in the summer of 2011.
Many of the projects will likely focus on particular resource issues of heightened concern in a given geographic region (e.g., nutrient pollution in impaired watersheds, wildlife habitat for threatened species, cover crop adoption to improve soil health and reduce runoff, downstream flood control through drainage management and wetland restoration, etc.), or a given set or type of farmers within a State or area interested in pursuing particular innovative conservation objectives (e.g, organic transition, young farmers adopting comprehensive conservation plans, a group of farmers pursuing carbon offset markets, etc.).
Technical Assistance Funds
In addition to providing assistance directly to producers to implement conservation activities as part of an RCPP project, today’s APF clarifies that RCPP funds may also be directed to partners for a variety of technical assistance (TA) activities, including resource assessment, conservation practice survey and design, conservation planning, and resource monitoring, among others.
According to the APF, “TA funding may be provided to a partner through the RCPP partnership agreement. No RCPP funding may be used to cover partners’ administrative costs.” Partners must indicate in their pre-proposal whether or not they are requesting TA funds.
NSAC has worked since 2011 to ensure that project partners are able to access financial assistance so that they can provide adequate outreach and technical assistance to producers. This is a major win for smaller organizations across the county. These organizations have the expertise and relationships necessary to reach, recruit, and mobilize farmers, do conservation planning, and conduct monitoring and evaluation of project outcomes; however, they often lack the financial resources necessary to do such work.
Partners will still be required to cover a significant portion of the overall cost of the project, including in-kind services. In fact, 30 percent of a proposal’s ranking score will be based on an assessment of this partner contribution. NRCS will assess both the amount of funding that a partner will bring to the table as well as the extent and type of in-kind activities, such as outreach and education, that partners will contribute.
Critical Conservation Areas
The farm bill allocates 35 percent of total RCPP funding for projects in Critical Conservation Areas (CCAs), 40 percent to NRCS national headquarters for other national priorities, and 25 percent to state NRCS offices for in-state projects. Money allocated to the states will be awarded to projects by the NRCS state office.
As part of today’s announcement, Secretary Vilsack established eight CCAs. T hose areas will be the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Great Lakes Region, Mississippi River Basin, Colorado River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta, and Prairie Grasslands. The Prairie Grasslands region includes North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, nearly all of South Dakota and Iowa, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Missouri.
Eligible Conservation Activities
The APF directs RCPP projects to address one or more resource conservation goals, including:
Ranking of Proposals
NRCS will assign 25 percent of the proposal ranking points based on how partners engage communities to identify resource management opportunities, establish goals, design solutions that are enduring and locally supported.
Thirty percent of a proposal’s ranking score will be based on an assessment of the partner contribution. NRCS will assess both the amount of funding that a partner will bring to the table as well as the extent and type of in-kind activities, such as outreach and education, that partners will contribute.
Another 20 percent of the ranking points will be based on the extent to which a project proposal is innovative. NRCS provides the following examples of what it considers “innovation” – the proposal recognizes recent scientific findings; the project will help producers avoid the need for regulation; the project will use environmental markets; or the partner evaluated the cost-effectiveness of at least two approaches.
USDA will assign the final 25 percent based on the level and extent of participation by farmers, private businesses, utilities, and other stakeholders.
Duties of Partners
Under a partnership proposal, partners are required to:
o The eligible activities to be implemented;
o The potential agricultural or nonindustrial private forest land operations affected; and
o The local, State, multistate, or other geographic area covered; and the planning, outreach, implementation, and assessment to be conducted;
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP retains existing funding from the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, both of which had permanent funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. In addition to this baseline funding, RCPP – like its predecessor, the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) – pulls funding from other existing conservation programs, referred to in the statute as “covered programs.”
As with the CCPI, the list of covered programs for RCPP includes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Unlike CCPI, however, RCPP now also pulls funding from the conservation easement programs, an addition that NSAC championed.