New conservation funding program favors Pacific Northwest, California

By Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announces new conservation program during Portland visit.

PORTLAND — The Columbia River Basin shared by Oregon, Washington and Idaho is one of eight regions nationally selected for special conservation project funding under a new program announced by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, combines four older programs into a new initiative. Funding contained in the 2014 Farm Bill, up to $1.2 billion over five years, will be used to improve water and soil health, wildlife habitat and watersheds.

The difference from previous programs, Vilsack said during an appearance in Portland Thursday, is an emphasis on collaboration between producers, private land owners, environmental groups, state and local agencies and federal regulators. Expanding the number of conservation partners can leverage federal money, Vilsack said.

Grants, starting with about $400 million in 2014-15, will be awarded in three ways. Eight regions, including the Columbia River Basin and a long swath of Central California defined as the California Bay Delta, will receive 35 percent of the money.

Forty percent of the funding will go to nationwide or multi-state projects, and 25 percent will go to state projects. Projects will be funded in a competitive process. Ron Alvarado, director of the Oregon office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said his office has received 11 project applications that could be considered for funding. The program fosters a “landscape approach” to conservation problems, capable of crossing county or ownership lines, he said.

Vilsack, the ag secretary, said Oregon was an apt place to announce the program.

“It’s great to be back in a state that truly values conservation and understands the power it has to change landscapes and change lives,” he said.

In Portland, Vilsack toured Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, which helps entrepreneurs take food ideas to market. Vilsack said he tasted a seaweed product. “It’s an acquired taste for a Midwest guy,” he said.

During a brief news conference, Vilsack said he expects a report on the GMO wheat found in Eastern Oregon last year in the “very near term” but cautioned it may contain some question marks.

“I’m not sure we’re going to have every answer,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said the USDA is working in the meantime to foster coexistence between growers of conventional and genetically engineered crops. Vilsack revived the department's Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture for that purpose.



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