A woman walks a dog on the Illinois side of the Missouri and Mississippi river confluence.
WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) joined Gov. Pat Quinn Tuesday in announcing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated the Mississippi River Basin and the Great Lakes as “Critical Conservation Areas” under a new program – the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) – created by the Farm Bill that Congress passed earlier this year. In an April 2014 letter, Durbin and Kirk asked Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, for this designation.
The RCPP streamlines conservation efforts by combining four programs into one to find savings while protecting some of our nation’s most sensitive lands. The RCPP will competitively award funds to conservation projects designed by local partners specifically for their region. These public-private partnerships will dramatically increase the capacity to fund conservation efforts nationwide and will spur economic growth.
“Protecting America’s waterways is vital to our way of life and this new USDA initiative – made possible through the Farm Bill – makes supporting local conservation efforts along Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River a national priority,” Durbin said. “These new public-private partnerships will have a positive impact on local producers and farmers in Illinois while spurring job creation and maximizing our nation’s commitment to conservation and public health.”
“Nearly 30 million Americans rely on the Great Lakes region as their drinking water source, and it is imperative that we continue to protect the region’s ecological and environmental well-being,” Kirk said. “These public-private partnerships will provide farmers with important conservation opportunities and the flexibility needed to meet the goals included in the recent farm bill.”
“Most of Illinois is bordered by waterways, and conserving these waterways and the life they sustain will be a priority of this new program,” Quinn said. “We welcome the jobs this program will create. People will be employed to develop the conservation projects funded by this program, and additional jobs will follow as more people visit and use these vital water resources.”
As members of the Great Lakes Task Force, Durbin and Kirk have consistently advocated for the most effective efforts to restore the Great Lakes to their most pristine status. The Great Lakes are a national treasure, a significant economic resource, and an invaluable recreational ecosystem going back centuries. In 2011, the University of Michigan released a study that showed 1.5 million jobs and $62 billion in wages were directly attributable to the Great Lakes.
According to the Department of Agriculture, eligible partners under the RCPP include private companies, universities, non-profit organizations, local and tribal governments and others joining with agricultural and conservation organizations and producers to invest money, manpower and materials to their proposed initiatives. With participating partners investing along with the Department, USDA’s $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year program can leverage an additional $1.2 billion from partners for a total of $2.4 billion for conservation. $400 million in USDA funding is available in the first year. Through RCPP, partners propose conservation projects to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat, and other related natural resources on private lands.
In addition to supporting local conservation goals, clean land and water investments create jobs in local communities. Conservation work involves building and maintaining infrastructure — building terraces in fields or restoring wetlands, which requires the hiring of contractors, engineers, scientists and others. Conservation can also provide an economic boost by spurring local tourism. Cleaner water and enhanced wildlife habitat provide additional 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.