The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) announced improvements to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) last week, as well as an unprecedented $1 billion investment to advance partner-driven solutions to conservation on agricultural land through 81 projects, including five in Iowa.
DES MOINES, IA, Nov. 6, 2023 — The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) announced improvements to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) last week, as well as an unprecedented $1 billion investment to advance partner-driven solutions to conservation on agricultural land through 81 projects, including five in Iowa.
Iowa’s five new RCPP projects will receive $48 million in funding. RCPP leverages a voluntary approach to conservation that expands the reach of conservation efforts and climate-smart agriculture through public-private partnerships. Historic funding is made possible by both the Inflation Reduction Act, part of President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, and the Farm Bill.
“The demand for RCPP shows how much interest there is from producers and partners for voluntary conservation on the ground,” said Jon Hubbert, State Conservationist in Iowa for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “USDA is making historic investments and streamlining the program to make it work better for producers and partners. The combination of historic investments and streamlining actions will deliver conservation at a scale never achieved through RCPP.”
NRCS has identified ways to streamline and simplify RCPP, ease the burden on employees and partners, and help maximize flexibility for partners to leverage their investments with NRCS resources and capabilities.
Through a concerted effort over the past eight months, using guidance, feedback and expertise from partners, employees, leadership and stakeholders, NRCS has identified several improvements that the agency will implement in the months and years ahead.
- Streamlining RCPP agreements for fiscal year 2023 awards and moving to one programmatic agreement to begin implementing the RCPP projects awarded under the fiscal year 2024 notice of funding opportunity. This will allow partners to begin implementation of their RCPP projects more quickly.
- Entrusting program management and negotiation to the State Conservationists, who lead NRCS programs in each state, further encouraging the locally led process and ensuring the necessary technical needs and costs were realized before project proposal submission.
- Establishing parameters and expectations for easement negotiations, including availability of easement deed templates and established program processes to reduce partnership agreement negotiation and implementation timeframes.
- Improving RCPP guidance and training, ensuring RCPP policies and procedures are communicated in a uniform and consistent manner.
- Enhancing existing business tools to improve the user experience while beginning development of new business tools that, through integration and automation, will reduce the time required for agreement negotiation, processing obligations and making payments to partners.
Once improvements have been implemented, NRCS estimated the negotiation time of RCPP agreements with U.S.-held easement activities will be reduced from 15 months to three months, and from 19 months to three months with entity-held easement activities.
The RCPP improvements are coming at a critical time, as they will strengthen NRCS’ ability to implement the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided $4.95 billion in additional funding for the program over five years.
New Iowa RCPP Projects
Iowa’s five new RCPP projects are in addition to 13 existing Iowa-led projects. The new RCPP projects include:
- Protection and Restoration of Grasslands in Iowa: The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation will restore 10,000 acres of grassland and protect approximately 8,000 acres with entity-held conservation easements in a 40-county area of western and southern Iowa. The project will emphasize targeting the nationally recognized Loess Hills Landform, a Grassland of Special Environmental Significance. ($23 million NRCS contribution/$14.4 million partner contribution)
- Protect Rathbun Lake: The Protect Rathbun Lake project will help reduce sediment and sediment-bound phosphorus loads that cause water quality impairments. The Rathbun Land and Water Alliance with leverage RCPP and partner funding to address soil erosion, soil health, livestock production, aquatic habitat, and greenhouse gases. ($8.7 million NRCS contribution/$3.8 million partner contribution)
- Scott County Iowa Working Lands for Resilient Communities: Lead partner Ducks Unlimited will implement conservation practices to improve water quality and quantity, soil health, and wildlife habitat. A “batch and build” concept will be used to expedite installation of practices that require engineering support – such as saturated buffers – benefitting multiple operations in Scott County. ($8 million NRCS contribution/$3.2 million partner contribution)
- Cover Crop and Water Quality Program: Led by lead partner GROWMARK Inc., the project aims to remove barriers to cover crop implementation and source the seed, plant, management, and termination of cover crops for producers. The project will use proprietary satellite imagery and analytics to monitor the crops from planting to harvest and identify nitrogen deficiencies and other issue that impact cover crop implementation. ($4.5 million NRCS contribution/$6.5 million partner contribution)
- Connecting Wildlife Habitat by Integrating Conservation Corridors on Working Lands: Lead partner Iowa Wildlife Federation will work to connect existing wildlife habitat to create wildlife corridors for species, with a special emphasis on pollinators and monarch butterflies. The project will convert 1,500 acres of working lands into prairie and 100 acres into wetlands and micro-wetlands. ($3.7 million NRCS contribution/$565,500 partner contribution)
For more information about signup and implementation of new projects and a complete list of Iowa RCPP projects, visit: nrcs.usda.gov/programs-initiatives/iowa/RCPP.
To apply for NRCS conservation programs, contact your local NRCS office. For more information about conservation planning and programs to help treat natural resource issues on your land, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/ia.