USDA announces new conservation finance program

By Catherine Sweeney, Business Writer Published: May 31, 2014
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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.