May 5, 2015
On Monday, May 4, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the availability of up to $235 million to fund conservation projects through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) in fiscal year 2016. As its name implies, RCPP supports partnerships between 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 8. NRCS will select pre-proposals invited to submit full proposals by September 4. Full proposals are due by November 10, with NRCS making final selections by January 2016. Farmers can apply to participate in a project once project areas have been determined.
RCPP projects generally 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.).
Announcement of Program Funding
Interested applicants can download the full Announcement of Program Funding (APF) from the Grants.gov website. For FY 2016, the APF lowers the payment limit for projects from $20 million to $10 million, though most projects will be funded at a much smaller amount.
The 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.
Like last year, 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 changed slightly relative to last year. Like 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. Last year, NRCS awarded 30 percent of the ranking points based on this criterion. 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. Last year, NRCS awarded 20 percent of the ranking points based on this criterion. NRCS provides the following examples of what it considers “innovation”:
Establish or demonstrate environmental markets or conservation investment strategies; use new methods or new technologies and approaches that are documented as feasible; use innovative methods of conservation delivery; support the improvement of existing or the creation of new conservation practice standards; use suites of conservation activities; identify comprehensive strategies for involving historically underserved producers; provide scalable innovation and multi-pronged approaches to fit diverse needs.
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 2014 Farm Bill created RCPP by consolidating four previously separate programs: the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI), Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP), Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI), and Great Lakes Conservation Initiative (GLCI).
Under the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP retains $100 million per year in existing funding from AWEP and CBWI. In addition, RCPP pulls 7 percent of funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP).
Because RCPP pulls funding from CSP, EQIP, ACEP, and HFRP, cuts to the underlying programs mean cuts to RCPP. Unfortunately, the President’s FY 2016 budget proposal, which the APF tracks, would make deep cuts to CSP and EQIP funding. According to the Office of Management and Budget, the FY 2016 proposal cuts CSP funding by $486 million and EQIP funding by $373 million. If agreed to by Congress in the FY 2016 agriculture appropriations bill, these Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS) would reduce the 10-year RCPP budget by $60 million. For a program that is in such high demand, where NRCS could only fund $373 million out of the $2.8 billion originally requested in FY 2015, $60 million makes a big difference.
The RCPP APF assumes that Congress will agree to the CHIMPS requested in the FY 2016 Obama budget request. For example, the APF estimates that 456,680 acres will be available for RCPP projects through CSP. This assumes that appropriations CHIMPS will limit the overall FY 2016 CSP enrollment to 7 million acres, from the congressionally mandated level of 10 million acres. If Congress chooses not to cut CSP funding in FY 2016, an additional 243,320 acres would be available for RCPP projects. The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees are expected to release their draft FY 2016 appropriations bills this month or early next.
Later today, 130 farm, conservation, agriculture, and wildlife groups from around the country will deliver a letter to the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees vehemently opposing CHIMPS to farm bill conservation programs, and NSAC will continue to fight these cuts as the FY 2016 funding process ramps up.