Ushering in a new era of conservation

By Tom Vilsack and Paul Buttner

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently launched the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, a new effort that takes conservation off the farm and out of the forest and moves it into the board room.

The concept behind the program is simple: To feed a growing global population in the face of climate change, we must ask a lot of our land and water resources. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, for example, is one of the largest and most complex water delivery systems in this country.

The delta provides drinking water to 25 million Californians, offers habitat to 55 species of fish and 750 species of plants and wildlife, and supports one of the most productive agricultural regions of the country. This area is also central to the Pacific Flyway — a critical migration corridor for millions of birds. Many are water birds now reliant upon more than 500,000 acres of shallowly flooded rice fields in a state that has lost 95 percent of its historic wetlands.

That’s where the Regional Conservation Partnership Program comes in. It allows USDA to bridge the gap between those partners and leverage more support for what works in conservation. It allows non-traditional conservation stakeholders, such as companies and other for-profit groups, to jump on board with funding and other support for conservation projects designed by local partners, like farmers, ranchers and foresters.

RCPP builds on the momentum of conservation partners already engaged right here in the delta, including the California Rice Commission, but allows them to access more funding and technical support than they could on an individual basis.

This designation will spur further conservation efforts in Sacramento Valley rice fields, which provide food and resting places for millions of birds. Thanks to progressive farming practices, rice fields act as surrogate wetlands to nearly 230 wildlife species. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the food for California’s wintering waterfowl population comes from rice fields.

This program is a prime example of how government can serve as a catalyst for private investment to help meet the specific needs of local communities. By elevating fresh, new approaches; offering support for proven, successful conservation efforts; and bringing together a larger consortium of partners and monetary support, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program allows us to more effectively accomplish our shared goals of keeping the land resilient and water clean.

In addition to supporting local conservation goals, conservation investments brought by RCPP also will propel growth in communities. Conservation work involves projects to enhance fields for the needs of wildlife, restore wetlands and conserve water which means new local jobs. The resulting cleaner water and enhanced wildlife habitat also expand opportunities for hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.

The outdoor recreation economy supports 6.1 million direct jobs, $80 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue, and $646 billion in spending each year.

The new public-private partnerships established through RCPP will have an impact that is well beyond what any federal agency could accomplish on its own. USDA expects to invest $1.2 billion in RCPP projects across the country over the next five years. With partners investing alongside USDA, we hope to double that investment, leveraging a total of $2.4 billion for conservation.

We can’t achieve these goals without partners of all kinds — farmers, ranchers, private companies, universities, local and tribal governments and nonprofit organizations — at the table. Together, we will forge a new era of conservation partnership that more effectively confronts the growing threats to our natural resources and keeps our land resilient and our water clean for generations to come.

— Tom Vilsack is the U.S. secretary of agriculture and Paul Buttner is the environmental affairs manager for the California Rice Commission.

Special to The Enterprise

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