NSAC's Blog

$300 Million Announced for Conservation Partnerships, New Rulemaking Pending

September 20, 2019

Chris Dixon, White Hall MD in cover crop field with corn stubble in spring. Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg.
Chris Dixon, White Hall MD in cover crop field with corn stubble in spring. Photo credit: Edwin Remsberg.

This month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the availability of $300 million in project funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in fiscal year (FY) 2019. RCPP, administered by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), takes a cooperative approach to conservation activities with the private sector and local agencies working with NRCS to address watershed-based and other regional natural resource concerns.

RCPP is unique among NRCS conservation programs because farmers and ranchers generally learn about RCPP projects through partner entities (e.g., state or local governments, institutions of higher education, nongovernmental organizations, etc.), instead of directly by USDA, and then apply for financial assistance from NRCS through the project.

Applications from all 50 states and U.S. territories are eligible and must be submitted by December 3, 2019.

The 2018 Farm Bill provided $300 million in dedicated money for RCPP annually (up from $100 million in the previous Farm Bill) though total RCPP funding actually declined as Congress ended the practice of supplementing RCPP dollars with funding directly from the major farm bill conservation programs.

Half of the total funding is for projects applied for and approved at the state NRCS level, and the other half is for projects in eight Critical Conservation Areas (Great Lakes, Mississippi River, Chesapeake Bay, Columbia River, Colorado River, California Bay Delta, Prairie Grasslands, and Longleaf Pine Range) approved at the national level after state and regional review.

More information on the funding opportunity is available on NRCS’ RCPP page.

Farm Bill Complications

Substantive programmatic changes were made to RCPP in the 2018 Farm Bill, including the reauthorization of RCPP as its own standalone program. Consequently, a unique set of regulations must now be developed to inform how USDA will administer new components of RCPP. An interim final rule is expected to be released late 2019 or in the first half of 2020 that will include details on how the new program will be run. Upon release, NRCS will accept public comments on the rule.

The funding notice and request for applications released this month made clear that the Department’s hope is to get an interim final rule published in time to have applicants make any needed changes to their proposals to conform to the rules.

This is a very unusual process. Normally, a program of this magnitude does not start up until a final or interim final rule (IFR) is published and becomes operative. Prior to the 2018 Farm Bill, RCPP (and its predecessor programs from the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bill that had different names but were essentially the same program) did not require a rule because the program operated as an adjunct to the major underlying farm bill conservation programs. Now that it is its own stand alone program, that is no longer the case. While USDA could have waited for the IFR before soliciting proposals, the decision was made to move forward without a rule, and then circle back to the rule requirements before issuing any awards.

According to NRCS, final program policies, contracting, and agreement documents, and IT/administrative infrastructure will be finalized by the interim final rule. NRCS reports that the interim final rule will be ready no later than June 1, 2020.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is following several program details introduced or revised in the 2018 Farm Bill to assess how they will be dealt with in the IFR:

  • Conservation planning processes, conservation practice standards, and payment schedules, and the degree of flexibility granted to the individual projects.
  • The precise nature and size of technical assistance (TA) funding arrangements with the cooperative partners – up to 30 percent of project funding can be for TA, but a substantial portion of that amount can be split between NRCS and the partners.
  • The details on project evaluation and reporting required for conservation outcomes and optional for economic and social outcomes.
  • The new grant subprogram within RCPP that will, for the first time, allow private partners to directly deliver public financial assistance dollars to farmers and ranchers – a provision that NSAC opposed during farm bill deliberations and now will carefully evaluate to ensure there is strong public accountability and transparency.

RCPP Activity Types

RCPP projects may include any combination of the following types of conservation activities implemented by farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners:

  • Land management/land improvement/ restoration practices (e.g., EQIP, CSP, wetland restoration related activities)
  • Land rentals (e.g., CRP type activities)
  • Entity-held easements (e.g., farmland preservation)
  • United States-held easements (e.g., wetland restoration)
  • Public works/watersheds (e.g., small watershed flood control)

Land improvement / management / restoration activities will be offered based on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contracting model and the EQIP-CSP application and ranking system.

Land Rentals will be offered based on a combination of EQIP and Conservation Reserve Program models. NRCS will consider funding proposals where the lead partner proposes land activities that focus on short-term rentals as part of a larger RCPP project. Large scale, long term rentals will not be eligible.

Conservation Easements will retain some aspects of Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and Healthy Forest Reserve Program (HFRP) easements; however, the rule will make some changes that may be significant:

  • U.S.-Held Easements are expected to retain some elements of ACEP-WRE and HFRP, but will utilize new template deeds based on the level of restrictions of the easement. Landowners will be paid up to 100 percent of the easement value for a high level of landowner restriction, 75 percent for a moderate level of restriction, and up to 50 percent for a low level of restriction. In addition to wetlands and forestland, covered land may also include floodplains, grasslands, agricultural lands, and riparian areas. Partner matching funds may be used to complement NRCS funding and are encouraged.
  • Entity-Held Easements will also retain some elements of ACEP-ALE and will be expanded to include other land uses such as wetlands, floodplains, forest lands. Cost-share will be provided up to 50 percent with U.S. right of enforcement and up to 25 percent without. Partner matching funds will be required, and easement matching funds can be counted as partner contributions.

Public Works/watersheds projects carried out under the Small Watershed and Flood Prevention Program (Public Law 83-566) will be required to detail proposed public works / watershed activities that have demonstrable ties to the RCPP project. Up to 100 percent in financial assistance can be requested for flood control projects, while non-flood control projects must meet a minimum 35 percent matching requirement. These may be waived if projects will benefit communities where residents meet limited or socially disadvantaged criteria.

Eligibility and Enrollment

RCPP follows four guiding key principles: (1) impact – projects must solve natural resource challenges, (2) partner contributions address resource priorities, (3) innovation – new approaches or technologies are leveraged to deliver conservation solutions, and (4) partnerships and management – cooperative model helps NRCS to provide outreach and quantify environmental outcomes. Applications are ranked by their relevance to these key principles.

Applicants must also identify whether their projects will be within RCPP’s Critical Conservation Areas (CCA), and whether they will work in single or multiple states.

Along with working area, a lead partner must be identified for the application. Lead partners can include: an agricultural producer association, a state or tribe, farmer cooperative, municipal water district and wastewater treatment, a college or university, a conservation district, or an organization with an established history of working with producers as determined by NRCS. Lead partners will be responsible for collaborating and completing RCPP projects.

Review of applications takes place at the state level, is coordinated by the relevant states, and evaluated using specified criteria set by RCPP’s four key principles. NRCS requires any relevant permitting requirements to be included with applications. Successful applicants for FY 2019 funding can expect to begin projects in June 2020.

How to Apply

The application period for RCPP is open from September 3, 2019 through December 3, 2019. To apply, visit NRCS’ website. To learn more about RCPP, visit our Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.

Categories: Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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