The Hewlett Gulch Trail in the Poudre Canyon area near Fort Collins, Colorado.

Caring for our Land, Air and Water: Preserving Precious Natural Resources for Tomorrow

Tom Vilsack
Feb 3, 2016 · 11 min read

As careful stewards of the land, American farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are leaders in innovation, risk management and adaptation, embracing their duty to conserve and protect our natural resources. It was true when the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was established in the years when sweeping dust storms ravaged the Midwest during the Dust Bowl. It was true when the Forest Service was founded at the turn of the twentieth century to manage forest resources and guard against massive wildfires. And it remains true today as climate change, pests and disease contribute to rising risk of wildfire and challenge a growing population’s food, fuel and fiber needs.

Throughout the Obama Administration, USDA has generated thousands of critical partnerships to address these challenges while enrolling a record number of acres in conservation programs. Major initiatives launched since 2009 include the Forest Planning Rule, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Working Lands for Wildlife, and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Our expert staff work with partners to create voluntary, incentive-based solutions for conservation that also provide regulatory certainty and predictability for producers and landowners.

Seventy-percent of the nation’s land is owned and tended to privately. And as we begin to feel the growing impacts of a changing climate, farmers, ranchers and landowners have willingly stepped up to meet this challenge. With USDA’s support, they work to implement voluntary practices that clean the air we breathe and the water we drink, prevent soil erosion and create and protect wildlife habitat. Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion to help producers make conservation improvements, working with as many as 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect land and water on over 400 million acres nationwide.

At the same time, USDA’s Forest Service is supporting a multi-pronged approach to sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s 193 million acres of public forests and rangeland. Between 2011 and 2014, despite record drought, longer fire seasons and more than half of its budget spent fighting wildfire, the Forest Service and our partners increased the pace and scale of forest restoration by 9 percent.

Conservation on Private Working Lands

Voluntary conservation by farmers and ranchers also builds productive and sustainable working lands. USDA support — leveraged with historic outside investments — helps support producer incomes and reward them for their good work.

Historic partnerships work to conserve wildlife habitat
Click the photos above to read about two unprecedented voluntary conservation efforts with landowners that resulted in the determination that both the greater sage grouse and the New England cottontail no longer needed Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, we celebrated an important anniversary: the 30th anniversary of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The largest private-lands conservation program in the United States, CRP works with farmers by paying rental rates to conserve productive land and protect environmentally sensitive land and plant species for better environmental health.

Celebrating 30 Years of CRP and a Century of Life
When Minnesota farmer and conservationist Arthur “Art” Hulberg celebrated his 100th birthday this year, he also marked the 30th anniversary of USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program–a program in which Hulberg has participated since its inception. To mark both occasions, Secretary Vilsack wrote Mr. Hulberg a letter. Read.

Since 1985, CRP has sequestered an annual average of 49 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to taking 9 million cars off the road; prevented 9 billion tons of soil from erosion, enough to fill 600 million dump trucks; and reduced nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 95 and 85 percent, respectively.

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Seventy percent of the land in the lower 48 states is privately owned, home to productive working lands that account for much of our nation’s open space and wildlife habitat. USDA’s Landscape Conservation Initiatives, such as the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI), accelerate the benefits of voluntary conservation programs on this land by coordinating the delivery of assistance where it can have the most impact. Since 2009, USDA has worked with more than 600 partners and 5,000 farmers to make conservation improvements on more than 1 million acres in the MRBI region.

When disaster strikes, such as a devastating drought in the West, USDA programs are quick to respond. In 2014, USDA’s investments to help farmers, ranchers and rural communities affected by drought topped $1 billion. These investments, spanning USDA, include support for producers to conserve water and mitigate impacts to their land and operations, improvements to the health and resiliency of forest ecosystems, protection for vulnerable land, soil and watersheds, and assistance for citizens facing a decline in the quality and quantity of their drinking water. In addition, the establishment of seven Regional Climate Hubs, including one in Davis, California, will serve the needs of agricultural producers and foresters by providing regional data and interpretation of climate change forecasts to help landowners better manage their resources.

Improving Water Quality in “America’s River”
More than 50 cities and 18 million people rely on the Mississippi River for their daily water supply. Through the 13-state Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative, initiated in 2009, NRCS and partners are working with producers and landowners to implement voluntary conservation practices that improve water quality, while maintaining agricultural profitability in the Mississippi River basin. Through USDA support, producers have contributed to a reduction of 260 million pounds of nitrogen and 534 million pounds of phosphorus in the Mississippi River Basin between 2008 and 2013.
Click to view map and legend.

Building Public-Private Partnerships

We know that in a country as large and geographically diverse as ours, there can be no one-size fits all approach to conservation. Under the Obama Administration, USDA has sought to establish long-lasting partnerships with regional community leaders, organizations, state and local governments and others to ensure productive working lands use cutting-edge conservation practices to generate both market and environmental incentives, while balancing the needs of wildlife and communities.

The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), launched in 2015, brings a radically different approach to investing in natural resource conservation and empowers local communities to work with multiple partners, farmers and ranchers to design and invest in regional solutions that work best for them. With participating partners investing along with USDA, our $1.2 billion investment in RCPP over the next five years can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion for innovative conservation work.

How it works: RCPP Infographic
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We’re already seeing how RCPP is building meaningful coalitions to create change in examples like the Tri-State Western Lake Erie Basin Phosphorous Reduction Initiative. A recent algal bloom crisis left 400,000 residents in the Toledo, Ohio area without water to drink, bathe or cook. The coalition brings together more than 40 partnering organizations from Michigan, Ohio and Indiana to reduce phosphorus runoff into Lake Erie, targeting funding to the streams and rivers that have the largest impact on water quality in the lake.

Fostering Innovation, Supporting Critical Research and Developing New Tools

USDA is also broadening our efforts to support the development of emerging environmental markets for carbon, water quality, wetlands and biodiversity — markets that can become an economic driver for conservation while at the same time generating new sources of income for our rural communities.

The latest innovation in building: Next-generation lumber and mass timber products
In 2015, two winners were announced and received a combined $3 million in funding to support the development of tall wood demonstration projects in New York City and Portland, Oregon. The U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition promotes forest restoration and retention, and fosters sustainability in the built environment.

In 2015, we unveiled a new plan to help producers and forest landowners respond to climate change. USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry span a range of technologies and practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage and generate clean renewable energy on privately owned land. Through this comprehensive set of voluntary practices, USDA expects to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year by 2025. This strategy builds on the good work producers are already doing, and helps to fulfill important commitments made in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

Through our Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program, USDA is investing in projects that promote creativity and problem-solving in conservation. Since 2009, 368 CIGs have been awarded to support conservation approaches and technologies that develop new ways to attract private investment in natural resource conservation and help farmers and ranchers make their operations more resilient to climate change. In North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole region, a CIG helped develop the methodology needed to quantify, and create a market for, carbon stored in grasslands. Thanks to USDA’s support, in partnership with Ducks Unlimited, The Climate Trust and the Bonneville Environmental foundation, in 2014 Chevrolet purchased almost 40,000 tons of greenhouse gasses from ranchers to partially offset the company’s carbon emissions. This example of public-private partnership demonstrates how much can be achieved with a modest federal investment and a strong commitment to cut carbon pollution.

Measuring the results of our efforts and the hard work of farmers is equally important. USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) is a multi-agency effort to quantify the environmental effects of conservation practices and develop the science base for managing the agricultural landscape. CEAP embodies a model of shared leadership, leveraging funding and expertise of more than 60 Federal and State agencies, universities, and non-profit organizations to guide USDA conservation policy and program development and help farmers and ranchers make more informed decisions for their land.

A rainbow created by mist from a pivot irrigation with rotating and end gun style pivot sprinkler in Hanover, Virginia

Conserving our Natural Resources Creates Economic Opportunities

Conservation work also creates economic opportunities in local communities. Cleaner water and more wildlife habitat spur local tourism with 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.

America’s vast system of public forests and grasslands supplies the drinking water for 60 million Americans and provides opportunities for over 165 million visitors each year to recreate and support local economies through tourism. These recreational uses support approximately 200,000 full and part time jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local communities each year.

Under this Administration, five new sites have received National Monument designation on National Forest lands.
San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in California and Chimney Rock National in Colorado (both pictured) are two of five national monuments that have been designated under this Administration.

Protecting our Lands for Future Generations

As part of our responsibility to protect our national treasures for generations to come, USDA and the Forest Service are planning for an uncertain future. In recent years, climate change, pests, disease and suburban sprawl have contributed to the growing severity of wildfire seasons. The Forest Planning rule, published in 2012, and now currently being implemented, is helping to set guidelines for adaptive land management plans for our National Forest System to protect water and wildlife while promoting vibrant, economically thriving communities.

In addition, we’re supporting collaborative approaches to increasing the pace and scale of restoration through efforts like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). In five years since the initial CFLRP projects began, the program has improved more than 1.33 million acres for wildlife habitat; treated more than 1.45 million acres to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire; treated more than 84,500 acres of land to achieve healthier condition through timber sales; and contributed to generating an average of 4,360 jobs per year. Moreover, CFLRP projects attracted new partners and built community relationships, leveraging more than $76.1 million in matching funds.

We’re also thinking ahead to our next generation of conservation stewards. Strong partnerships like the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC) provide job training and employment opportunities for thousands of young Americans and veterans to protect and restore our natural and cultural resources. Since 2014, we’ve helped support more than 10,000 jobs and training opportunities annually through 21CSC. Programs like 21CSC serve to engage new populations in the benefits of public lands, and work to create an expanded network of thoughtful and engaged conservationists.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack listens to the U.S. Forest Service Trail Crew Supervisor about the project in the Bridger-Teton National Forest as the Montana Conservation Corp work on the new trail in Jackson, WY

In recent years, however, the costs of fighting wildfires have jeopardized the future of our forests. With longer, hotter and more unpredictable fire seasons, the Forest Service has experienced significant shifts in staffing and resources.

For the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service is spending more than 50 percent of its budget to suppress the nation’s wildfires. Within a decade, the agency estimates it will spend more than two-thirds of its budget to battle ever-increasing fires, while mission-critical programs that can help prevent fires in the first place — such as forest restoration and watershed and landscape management — will suffer. Meanwhile, catastrophic blazes are projected to burn twice as many acres by 2050.

Graphics from “The Rising Cost of Wildfires”

Despite these projections, the Forest Service continues to do more with less. And when wildfires do strike, our brave fire crews are well equipped to respond safely and effectively to protect lives, property and valuable natural and cultural resources from devastation. In recent years, the Forest Service has made significant progress in modernizing its large airtanker fleet with the addition of Next Generation Airtankers, which fly faster and carry more fire retardant than older models, contributing to a more timely and efficient response when it’s needed most.

Promoting the Health of Pollinators

About 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. Scientists estimate that one out of every three bites we eat exists because of pollinators like bees, butterflies and moths, birds, bats, beetles and other insects. Simply put, the health of both the global population and the global economy depends on healthy pollinators, which is why USDA continues to pursue a multi-agency approach to find solutions to the issues affecting pollinator health.

Through the Pollinator Health Task Force, created in June 2014, and which USDA co-chairs, we developed the National Strategy to Promote Pollinator Health, Pollinator Research Action Plan, and Pollinator-Friendly Best Management Practices for Federal Lands that were published in 2015.

Through the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program, farmers and ranchers now maintain 169,000 acres of land voluntarily set aside to help pollinators. USDA’s NRCS also offers more than three-dozen conservation practices that can benefit pollinator habitat. We’ve spent over $5 million toward providing habitat and forage in a targeted five-state effort since early 2014 that includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2015, Montana was added and another $4 million was invested to support these efforts. To build on the targeted honey bee effort in the Midwest and Northern Plains, in 2016 NRCS announced the Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project to establish and improve habitat.

Our research agencies are also working to improve pollinator outcomes in a number of ways. For instance, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service maintains four laboratories that conduct research into bee genetics, breeding, biology and physiology, with special focus on bee nutrition, pathogens and parasites, the effects of pesticide exposure and the interactions between each of these factors. And the Forest Service is conducting research on pollinators while restoring and improving pollinator habitat on national forests and grasslands.

Two female Peponapis squash bees pollinating a zucchini flower

USDA Results

A progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America

Tom Vilsack

Written by

Secretary of Agriculture

USDA Results

A progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America

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