March 15, 2016
Well-designed public-private partnerships can enhance the delivery of federal conservation programs. Each of the last three farm bills have included a special funding set-aside for conservation partnerships, and in recent years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has actively promoted these partnerships.
On Monday, March 14, USDA announced the availability of $260 million for fiscal year 2017 (FY2017) proposals through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) that “improve the nation’s water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability”.
Partner entities (generally, non-profit groups, conservation districts, or other state or local agencies) design and submit project proposals to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Once approved by NRCS, farmers and ranchers can then apply to participate in the projects if there are one or more selected in their area. Financial and technical assistance to participating farmers is delivered by means of the regular farm bill conservation programs, such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
Partnership projects are often designed to tackle very specific priority natural resource concerns in a given project area or to meet the needs of a given set of farmers. Some RCPP projects, for example, might focus on specific resource issues of heightened concern in a defined locale, like preserving species diversity in the “Driftless Area” of Minnesota and Wisconsin. In contrast, other projects may focus on a set or type of farmers in a particular area who are interested in pursuing innovative conservation objectives, such as innovative tribal conservation and greenhouse gas management by Native American farmers in Alaska.
Pre-proposals due by May 10
By the week of July 18, NRCS will select pre-proposals and invite those selected to submit full proposals. Full proposals are then due by September 19, and NRCS will make final selections by December 2016. Farmers will be able to apply to participate in a project once project areas have been determined.
Unique this year, NRCS will be prioritizing for the first time projects that help producers mitigate and adapt to climate change. NSAC has recommended this addition for many years and we are pleased to see it finally included.
Interested applicants can download the full APF from the Grants.gov website. For FY2017, the APF maintains the $10 million payment limit for projects, though most projects will be funded at a smaller amount.
The Announcement of Program Funding (APF) 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.
The eight CCAs are 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.
The ranking criteria for assessing project proposals has not changed relative to last year. NRCS will assign 25 percent of the ranking points based on how partners engage communities to identify resource management objectives and solutions that are enduring and locally supported.
Twenty-five 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 25 percent of the ranking points will be based on the extent to which a project proposal is innovative. Innovative projects include those which:
USDA will assign the final 25 percent based on the level and extent of participation by farmers, private businesses, utilities, and other stakeholders.
Impacts of Appropriations Decisions
The bulk of RCPP’s funding comes from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) – each from which RCPP pulls 7 percent of funding.
This funding stream for conservation partnerships means that any cuts to the underlying programs translate into cuts for RCPP. Although the programs are technically under the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, appropriators often use a budget gimmick known as “changes in mandatory program spending” to raid farm bill conservation dollars each year.
The final FY2016 appropriations package, for example, cut farm bill funding for EQIP by $208.8 million. Additionally, automatic annual cuts known as sequestration cut EQIP, CSP, ACEP and HFRP funding by more than $200 million. As a result, $37.5 million in RCPP funding was reduced in FY2016.
Fortunately, USDA’s FY2017 budget proposal does not include any cuts to farm bill conservation programs. This is a good start. However, in the coming weeks the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees will begin to work on their FY2017 bills. Ultimately, it will be in their hands to decide whether or not to honor the USDA’s request for maintenance of full funding for these critical programs.
On March 9 more than 250 farm, conservation, and nutrition groups, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), delivered a letter to appropriators in Congress urging them not to cut farm bill or conservation program funding. NSAC is committed to the ongoing fight to avoid any proposed conservation cuts to these programs and will continue to keep you abreast of developments as they happen.