June 14, 2014 in Opinion

Guest opinion: Program offers new possibilities for conservation

Tom Vilsack And John Larson
 

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a new effort that takes conservation off the farm and out of the forest and moves it into the boardroom.

The concept behind the program is simple: To feed a growing global population in the face of climate change, we must ask a lot of our land and water resources. The Columbia River Basin provides habitat for salmon and steelhead, essential components of a healthy ecosystem and critical to Indian tribes and local communities. The region must balance many water uses, including power generation, agriculture and fishing, with the overall health of the basin.

Conservation has never been so critical, yet no single organization or government entity has the resources to take on these enormous challenges alone.

That’s where the Regional Conservation Partnership Program comes in. Created in the 2014 Farm Bill, the program allows USDA to bridge the gap between those partners and leverage more support for what works in conservation. It allows nontraditional conservation stakeholders, such as companies and other for-profit groups, to jump on board with funding and other support for conservation projects designed by local partners, like farmers, ranchers and foresters. The program builds on the momentum of conservation partners already engaged right here in the Columbia River Basin, but allows them to access more funding and technical support than they could on an individual basis.

This program can serve as a catalyst for private investment to help meet the specific needs of local communities. By elevating fresh, new approaches, offering support for proven, successful conservation efforts, and bringing together a larger consortium of partners and monetary support, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program allows us to more effectively accomplish our shared goals of keeping the land resilient and water clean.

In addition to supporting local conservation goals, conservation investments brought by the Regional Conservation Partnership Program will also propel growth in communities. Conservation work involves building terraces in fields, restoring wetlands, which means new local jobs. The resulting cleaner water and enhanced wildlife habitat also expand 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.

The new public-private partnerships established through the program will have an impact well beyond what any federal agency could accomplish on its own. USDA expects to invest $1.2 billion in projects across the country over the next five years. With partners investing alongside USDA, we hope to double that investment, leveraging a total of $2.4 billion for conservation.

We can’t achieve these goals without partners of all kinds – farmers, ranchers, private companies, universities, conservation districts and other local and tribal governments, and nonprofit organizations – at the table. The Regional Conservation Partnership Program will allow us to build on the ongoing efforts of partners such as conservation districts and nonprofit organizations who have trusted ties to producers and landowners implementing conservation practices.

Together, we will forge a new era of conservation partnership that more effectively confronts the growing threats to our natural resources and keeps our land resilient and our water clean for generations to come. For more information, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/FarmBill.

Tom Vilsack serves as the 30th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. John Larson, formerly of Olympia, is chief executive officer of the National Association of Conservation Districts.


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