By STEVE KARNOWSKI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $328 million in funding Monday to protect and restore farmlands, grasslands and wetlands across the country.
The initiative, using money provided in the new five-year farm bill, will buy conservation easements from farmers to protect the environment, help wildlife populations and promote outdoor recreation, the USDA said in its announcement. The agency selected 380 projects nationwide covering 32,000 acres of prime farmland, 45,000 acres of grasslands and 52,000 acres of wetlands.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on a conference call that the agency received more than 1,450 applications totaling $546 million worth of requests covering 345,000 acres. He said the projects selected cover 129,000 acres, with 60 percent being farmland and grassland and 40 percent wetlands.
“Obviously this is a popular program,” Vilsack said, adding that other assistance may be available for the projects that weren’t selected and that backers of those proposals can try again next year.
The USDA said some of this year’s projects will improve water quality and wetland storage capacity in the heavily agricultural California Bay Delta region east of San Francisco Bay and south of Sacramento. They’re also designed to reduce flooding along the upper Mississippi River and Red River of the North in the Midwest. They also seek to provide and protect habitat for several endangered and at-risk species including sage grouse, bog turtles, Florida panthers, Louisiana black bear and whooping cranes. They’re also meant to protect prime agricultural land under high risk of development due to urban sprawl.
The money will come through the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which consolidates three former easement programs into two — one to protect farmlands and grasslands and one to protect and restore wetlands.
The new program provides financial and technical assistance to help state, local and tribal governments and non-governmental organizations buy easements for varying time periods to protect working agricultural lands and limit their conversion to non-farm uses, as well as to restore and protect wetlands in farm country. Vilsack said the new program rules provide the agency greater flexibility for choosing projects than the old programs.
Vilsack said the program complements another new effort, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. He announced $1.2 billion in USDA funding over five years for that program in May. The agency will raise an equal amount from various partners to fund locally designed soil and water conservation projects nationwide.
“It’s going to be very important for us to continue to look for creative ways to leverage and expand the use of conservation dollars to make the most and to get the biggest bang out of the buck that we spend and invest,” Vilsack said.