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Billion-dollar conservation program targets Colorado River Basin

Colorado River's Horseshoe Bend.
Colorado River's Horseshoe Bend.
Matt York, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The Colorado River Basin was identified Tuesday as one of eight priority areas across the nation under a new program that will parlay more than a billion dollars into conservation projects.

Authorized with the passage of the farm bill of 2014 in February, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program directs money to boost soil health and bolster water quality in a program that now brings together businesses, nonprofits and government agencies.

In Utah, money could go toward improving riparian habitat along the Jordan River, improving rangelands as a fire suppression management tool, or addressing the aftermath of wildfire destroying a watershed, such as the 2012 Seeley Fire that impacted Emery County's Huntington Creek.

"That fire is a perfect example of how this money could be used," said Pedro Ramos, who is assistant state conservationist over programs in the Salt Lake office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"What we are hoping for in Utah is projects that we can do in a way that would demonstrate the cumulative effects to help a watershed, or irrigation company improve its use of water," Ramos said. "It could be used to help sage grouse habitat."

By broadening the playground and including more participants in the funding queue, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture hopes to expand the scope of conservation efforts.

"This is an entirely new approach to conservation," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday in a teleconference announcing the plan.

"We're giving private companies, local communities, and other non-government partners a way to invest in what are essentially clean water start-up operations. By establishing new public-private partnerships, we can have an impact that's well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own," Vilsack said. "These efforts keep our land resilient and water clean, and promote tremendous economic growth in agriculture, construction, tourism and outdoor recreation, and other industries."

Ultimately, the $1.2 billion investment by the federal government over the life of the five-year program will help to leverage an additional $1.2 billion for conservation. In the first year, $400 million in USDA funding is available.

Eligible partners include private companies, universities, nonprofit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials in proposed projects.

Vilsack said conservation initiatives go beyond helping the land, the water and wildlife but ultimately put "boots on the ground," by providing jobs. He noted a 2013 study by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation that said conservation projects supported more than 600,000 jobs.

Sean McMahon with The Nature Conservancy joined Vilsack on the conference call and stressed that the new program allows projects to expand from field and farm to a watershed and landscape level.

"This truly is a historic day for conservation," he said. "It really will usher in new era in terms of public/private partnerships."

The new program was also hailed by a conservation coalition of sportsmen.

“One of the outstanding fruits of the 2014 Farm Bill is being harvested today,” said Whit Fosburgh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

"The RCPP program, combined with the Conservation Reserve Program, will produce huge benefits throughout the agricultural landscape. It is a chance for sportsmen to step up and engage effectively in the new Farm Bill – and in conservation efforts that will directly benefit important fish and wildlife habitat.”

The regional program has three funding pools: 35 percent of total program funding directed to the critical conservation areas chosen by the agriculture secretary; 40 percent directed to regional or multistate projects through a national competitive process; and 25 percent directed to state-level projects through a process established by NRCS state leaders.

USDA is now accepting proposals for the program. Pre-proposals are due July 14, and full proposals are due Sept. 26.

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