Now that President Donald Trump has signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, NACD’s Government Affairs Team will be releasing a series of blog posts to break down the bill in more detail with the expected changes folks can expect on the ground as USDA works to implement the new law.
Changes Coming to RCPP in the New Farm Bill
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), created in the 2014 Farm Bill, has been a great success for many conservation districts. This program matches Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) funding with non-federal funding and in-kind support to implement targeted conservation projects using farm bill conservation programs. Projects have been awarded to producer groups, state agencies, academic institutions, nonprofit organizations, water and irrigation districts, municipal water treatment entities and local governments. In the first five years of the program, a district or state association has been the lead partner on an impressive 93 out of a total of 365 projects – over 25 percent of all projects. This does not account for the many projects where districts work as partners but not the lead sponsor.
The 2018 Farm Bill made several changes to RCPP. Many of these reforms will help districts continue their impressive use of the program; leverage even more non-federal funding for conservation; and strengthen stewardship of our natural resources.
Funding & Structure
Since the 2014 Farm Bill, RCPP has been funded with a mix of both dedicated funding and a percentage of funds from so-called “donor programs.” These donor programs—the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)—contribute seven percent of their total funding to RCPP. In total, the program received roughly $250 million per year through this complicated funding arrangement. Moving forward, RCPP will stand as an independent program with $300 million per year in mandatory funding. NACD strongly supported this change since it removes the perception that RCPP is robbing the donor programs of funding and will significantly ease administrative burdens in the program
The 2018 Farm Bill also changes the way that RCPP awards funding. In the past, partners could apply for funding through one of three funding pools—the national pool, the state pool and the Critical Conservation Area (CCA) pool. Moving forward, these will be condensed into a state and multi-state pool and a CCA pool. Both funding pools will receive half of the total program funding each year. The original state pool was controlled by each state’s state conservationist and the new state/multi-state pool will continue to be controlled by a state conservationist rather than NRCS Headquarters. NACD supported robust funding for the state pool of funding where districts have been the most successful competing for funding and is pleased to see that state conservationists will continue playing a leading role.
Streamlining the Program
One of the chief criticisms of RCPP is how complex and difficult it is to apply for funding. The 2018 Farm Bill made several important changes to streamline and simplify RCPP. First, the bill explicitly calls for a more simplified application process. Since the statutory language is somewhat vague, it will be important for districts to weigh in on how the application process can be improved. Second, the match requirements for RCPP were clarified to explicitly allow in-kind matching contributions by project partners. Work completed between when a project is selected for RCPP and when the formal partnership agreement is signed with NRCS may now count towards matching funds as well. Additionally, RCPP now allows project renewals for the most successful projects. This is a timely change with the first round of RCPP projects about to come to completion.
The 2018 Farm Bill also aims to simplify RCPP by authorizing “RCPP Contracts.” Currently, landowners that are a part of an RCPP project sign a contract for one of the other conservation programs at NRCS, such as EQIP. Moving forward, these landowners will sign a new, RCPP-specific contract. Hopefully, this will simplify program administration.
Many districts find the process of applying for RCPP to be cumbersome. NACD has supported changes that make it easier for districts to apply of the program and manage their projects. While these changes sound minor, we hope they will make the program easier to manage for districts.
Expanding Covered Activities
The new farm bill expands the eligible activities that may be a part of RCPP. In the past, practices under EQIP, CSP and ACEP were the only eligible activities under RCPP nationally. Partners could use the Watershed Programs (PL-566), but only within a CCA. Moving forward, PL-566 will be eligible for all RCPP projects and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practices will be eligible nationally as well. NACD supported the expanded role of PL-566 in RCPP. This change will strengthen the program and fuel partners’ creativity.
New Grant Program
For NACD, one disappointment in the 2018 Farm Bill was the creation of a new grant program under RCPP. Currently, all landowners that participate in an RCPP project must sign a contract with NRCS at their local service center. While project partners administer technical assistance, NRCS and conservation districts still administer the financial assistance to landowners. In this way, RCPP follows the model for conservation delivery that has successfully been in existence since NRCS and districts were created.
The 2018 Farm Bill allows NRCS to grant the entire project funding—both technical and financial assistance funding—directly to the project partner for up to 15 projects per year. This is a vast improvement of earlier iterations that had 30 percent of all funding dedicated to these new grants. While we do not doubt the good intentions of RCPP partners, we are concerned that this provision erodes the conservation delivery system we have worked so hard to build over the last 80 years. To participate in one of the grant-funded projects, landowners will no longer need to walk into their local service center. This limits the ability of the landowner to build a long-term relationship with their local NRCS and district staff, which translates into future conservation work.
The farm bill explanatory text clearly states that USDA should only approve a grant under this new provision if “the project can truly be carried out more effectively through the alternative funding arrangement or grant than through the traditional partnership agreement model.” As USDA implements this portion of RCPP, NACD will be watching carefully and working to ensure this grant program causes as little harm to our conservation delivery system as possible.
Opportunities for Districts Continue
Since RCPP was created in 2014, districts have been key partners, whether leading projects or supporting other partners’ projects. The 2018 Farm Bill should only strengthen this role. NACD was grateful that Congress included the following in their explanatory text with the farm bill:
“The Managers continue to believe that initiatives developed at the local level and with local input are critical to ensuring the success of this program. Therefore, the Managers encourage potential project partners to engage with conservation districts within the boundaries of a proposed project for input and feedback on the natural resource priorities that have been identified. The Managers encourage NRCS to include conservation district engagement within its ranking criteria.”
While the explanatory text does not have the force of law, it provides clear guidance from Congress to USDA as they implement the law. As the 2018 Farm Bill is implemented, NACD expects that the opportunities for districts in RCPP will only grow.
Tags: 2018 Farm Bill