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 Legislative Roundtable.

“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.

Conservation Partnerships

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 Program.

“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.

Critical Areas

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.”