Natural resource conservation is paramount to the ongoing strength of our nation. Healthy soil contributes to agricultural productivity. Healthy forests clean our water and air. Vibrant waterways are critical for our health, for transportation and for trade. Investments into conservation spur job growth and community development, particularly in rural areas.
This is an uncertain time for USDA conservation activities. Congress has not yet passed a comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill that would continue to invest in conservation efforts, while providing rural America with certainty regarding many other important programs.
As we continue urging Congress to provide a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, USDA last week took several new steps to strengthen conservation across the country.
We invested in innovation by awarding new grants under USDA’s Conservation Innovation Grants program. New technologies and tactics are constantly emerging that help producers and landowners care for the environment. These 33 new awards will help organizations across the country carry out advanced new conservation strategies and share them with producers. For example, several projects will investigate the benefits of cover crops, which could help producers grow more while mitigating the impacts of a changing climate.
These new project awards are part of more than 260 projects funded since 2009, including a special group of Conservation Innovation Grants to help agriculture adapt to drought.
We also invested this week in the future of renewable energy from wood products. USDA announced a partnership with industry to work toward additional wood-to-energy projects, while awarding more than $1 million in grants for five statewide teams that will further develop these efforts. This builds on past work that has resulted in more than 230 wood-to-energy projects created under the Obama administration.
Advanced wood energy provides a wide range of benefits for our nation. It encourages forest restoration by providing a new way to use wood byproducts. It contributes to an “all-of-the above” energy strategy, giving folks an alternative to costly energy sources. And it helps to create good jobs in energy and forestry for rural Americans. Renewable wood energy holds tremendous promise for rural America, and the new investments made this week are yet another step forward for this technology.
To cap off a week of positive new developments for USDA conservation efforts, we announced Friday that the U.S. Forest Service will partner with Coca-Cola, the National Forest Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in a long-term effort to restore and clean waterways in our national forests.
National forests provide drinking water for more than 60 million Americans — and working together, USDA and Coca-Cola will undertake a range of projects in the coming years to restore forest waterways. These include working on the Angeles National Forest in California to prevent erosion caused by wildfire; restoring a stream in New Mexico that was previously impacted by industrial activity; and enhancing waterways within the Lake Michigan watershed.
Our hope is that these restoration projects will stand as an example for the benefit of public-private partnership to deliver results for the American people, even in a time of tighter budgets.
These new efforts complement the wide range of work we will continue to do with a focus on delivering record conservation results for Americans. With the right tools, including a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, there is much more we can achieve in the years to come.
Tom Vilsack is U.S. secretary of agriculture.