The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is seeking public comments on its interim rule for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which helps partners develop and implement unique conservation solutions that engage farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. The rule – now available on the Federal Register – takes effect on publication and includes changes to the program prescribed by the 2018 farm bill.
 
“Through RCPP, we co-invest with partners to implement projects that demonstrate innovative solutions to conservation challenges and provide measurable improvements and outcomes,” NRCS chief Matthew Lohr said. “We look forward to making available this improved, more flexible program to partners.”
 
The 2018 farm bill made RCPP a stand-alone program with its own dedicated funding, simplifying rules for partners and producers. Additionally, the 2018 farm bill reduced the number of funding pools and emphasized partner reporting of conservation outcomes. The updated program also expanded flexibility for alternative funding arrangements with partners and availability of watershed program authorities to projects outside critical conservation areas.
 
NRCS will make available $300 million for projects in fiscal 2020. The agency anticipates making the first alternative funding arrangement funding announcement in March, with the fiscal 2020 RCPP Classic announcement following in the summer of 2020.
 
Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) was encouraged by the improvements made by USDA, as directed under the 2018 farm bill. “I’m pleased the USDA is moving forward to implement improvements that will cut red tape for farmers and help them address the climate crisis,” Stabenow said. 
 
Stabenow created RCPP in the 2014 farm bill as an innovative approach to conservation that uses public/private partnerships to improve land and water. In the bipartisan 2018 farm bill, she led the effort to make improvements that streamline and expand the reach of partnerships.
 
The interim final rule will make the following changes directed by the farm bill, including tripling mandatory funding, which will leverage nearly $3 billion in new private investment in locally led conservation over the next decade. It will also eliminate a burdensome requirement that projects must operate through existing USDA conservation programs, which often do not provide enough flexibility to accommodate the unique needs and focus of projects. The 2018 farm bill changes allow USDA to operate the program with partners, defining the combination of conservation activities that will most effectively address issues like water quality, drought and wildlife habitat. This will increase flexibility and ease of administration.
 
The rule also increases focus on conservation results such as improved water quality, drought resilience and wildlife habitat by requiring USDA to provide clear guidance to partners on how to track and report on the conservation outcomes of their projects. USDA also took steps to simplify the project application process, providing additional flexibility in partner matching contributions, allocating funding to partners for project outreach and development activities and allowing current successful projects to renew under an expedited process.
 
In addition, it authorizes renewals of successful projects to continue funding and grow the reach of good work through existing partnerships on the ground.
 
NRCS invites comments on this interim rule through April 13 on the Federal Register. Electronic comments must be submitted through regulations.gov under Docket ID NRCS-2019-0012. All written comments received will be publicly available on regulations.gov as well.
 
NRCS will evaluate public comments to determine whether additional changes are needed. The agency plans on publishing a final rule following public comment review.
 
For more information, visit the RCPP webpage.
 
USDA seeks comments on regional conservation programs