BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Having grown up on the banks of the
Mississippi River in a family of farmers and towboat captains, Kirk Hanlin knew
early on the importance of protecting the land and water.
Now as Natural Resources Conservation Service assistant
chief, Hanlin, a Hancock County native, sees firsthand the willingness of
farmers and ranchers to partner with his agency.
“Producers in Illinois have been stepping up to the plate.
Producers are working at reducing sediment and nutrient losses and preventing
nitrogen and phosphorous from leaving their farm fields and entering the Great
Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin,” he said at the Illinois Agricultural
“We have wetlands that are being restored in Illinois. We
know we have a long way to go, but each of these small successes prove that we
can get to where we’re going.”
Just last year, 188,000 acres in Illinois was enrolled in
the Conservation Stewardship Program, 867 acres were returned to wetlands, more
than 80,000 acres were improved through the Environmental Quality Incentive
Program and conservation plans were developed for 10,000 acres.
“We’re proving that conservation works and can move the
needle,” Hanlin said.
Past and future success in protecting and improving water
and soil hinges on collaboration, and the farm bill provides a myriad of tools
to enhance partnerships, particularly the new Regional Conservation Partnership
“The RCPP combines the attributes and strengths of EQIP, CSP
and the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program while putting partners into
the driver’s seat because you get to choose the conservation project that you
think is important and propose to us,” Hanlin said.
The partnership streamlines conservation efforts by
combining the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation
Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Great
Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion programs into one.
With participating partners investing along with the NRCS,
the U.S. Department of Agriculture’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. In the first year, $400 million in
USDA funding is available.
Through the program, partners propose conservation projects
to improve soil health, water quality and water use efficiency, wildlife habitat
and other related natural resources on private lands.
Eligible partners include private companies, universities,
nonprofit 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.
Two of the nation’s eight “critical conservation areas”
identified for in the partnership include Illinois with the Mississippi River
Basin and Great Lakes Region.
“As exciting as it is to have these eight critical
conservation areas, all the money and work Illinois is doing is not going away.
This is all on top of it,” Hanlin said.
“Our folks will continue to offer the normal programs that
they work with producers on that individual basis, and this is a new opportunity
on top of that. I really believe this gives us the opportunity to move the
needle here in Illinois.”
His hope is that the program will bring new partners into
the conservation effort that will bring new ideas and innovations.
“We know we have major challenges ahead and we don’t have
enough resources to do it alone and nobody does. But working together we can do
this,” he said.
“A big part of what RCPP is about is to try to bring these
different groups together instead of each working on individual projects to try
to say this is a watershed we want to make a difference on.”