The U.S. Department of Agriculture has unveiled a billion-dollar conservation program this week that could benefit Oklahomans by improving water and soil conditions, creating jobs, and increasing tourism revenue.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program aims to establish private-public partnerships and streamline existing efforts. It will competitively award funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region, the Agriculture Department said.
Various organizations — including businesses, nonprofits, universities and government agencies — can work with agricultural and conservation groups to submit proposals to the department, including a list of how much they plan to invest in the project.
During the five-year program, the USDA will disperse $1.2 billion; it has allotted $400 million for the first year. The agency estimates participants will invest about another $1 billion over five years.
“We actually get a bigger bang for our buck when we work together,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Oklahoman.
Funding will be funneled into three kinds of projects: critical conservation areas, state and national.
Approved projects regarding the eight specified critical areas throughout the country, one of which passes through Oklahoma, will receive 35 percent of the USDA program funds.
The Prairie Grasslands Region, which runs down the center of the country, includes parts of western and central Oklahoma. The ecosystem suffers myriad environmental threats, including water shortages and habitat degradation.
The Tallgrass Prairie Reserve, near Pawhuska, spans 39,000 acres. The preserve, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie left on earth. It serves as one example of conservation-inspired tourism, a service which can benefit from the USDA program.
Conservation programs focusing on areas in one state, which receive 25 percent of the program’s funds, must focus on an environmental priority designated by the state’s USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service branch.
The state branch listed more than 10 priorities for Oklahoma, most of which focus on soil health and water shortages. The priorities were created by the state technical committee, an environmental advisory board, state Conservationist Gary O’Neill said.
Poor land management practices have harmed Oklahoma landscape, O’Neill said. Over-grazing and over-tilling are some of the worst perpetrators. Invasive species like the red cedar are also harming Oklahoma soil, he said.
Because of the recent drought, water issues have been at the forefront of agriculture and conservation efforts.
Water shortages and poor water quality are complicating livestock watering and irrigation.
Although state projects receive 25 percent of the $400 million, the USDA hasn’t announced how much money Oklahoma will receive, O’Neill said.
Oklahoma’s branch has autonomy over which plans to finance. It is choosing its participants using a ranking system.
“Obviously, the more resources they (the applicants) bring, the more competitive the ranking,” O’Neill said.
National projects, which will receive the remaining 40 percent of funds, require the affected area to cover multiple states. The priorities for national conservation programs are more vague, focusing on water quality and quantity, endangered species, soil health and air quality.
This program combines four existing USDA conservation programs: the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion.
In the past, the Department of Agriculture worked with farmers, agricultural groups or environmental organizations on an individual basis, funding their projects or offering advice on how to improve conditions in the area.
This program allows the department to work with organizations and individuals in the region while receiving project plans from the participants instead of creating plans for them.
“This is going to be locally driven,” Vilsack said. “Folks on the ground know what they need.”