Building Blocks: The Basics of the RCPP
First authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (“RCPP”) is a voluntary conservation program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (“NRCS”). Through the RCPP, NRCS partners with state and local governments, non-profit organizations, and other entities to create regional conservation projects. These entities are referred to as “partner entities,” and they help agricultural producers participate in approved RCPP projects.
The purpose of the RCPP is to “further the conservation, protection, restoration, and sustainable use of soil, water, […] wildlife, agricultural land, and related natural resources […] on a regional or watershed scale.” 16 U.S.C. § 3871(b)(2). To accomplish this purpose, NRCS enters into partnership agreements with eligible partners in order to implement conservation projects that assist agricultural producers with installing and maintaining approved conservation activities. 16 U.S.C. § 3871b(a). RCPP projects are created when NRCS accepts a project proposal submitted by a partner entity, after which NRCS and the partner entity form a partnership agreement. Agricultural producers may then choose to enter into program contracts which authorize producer participation in RCPP projects in exchange for financial and technical assistance from NRCS.
Funding for the RCPP is divided between two basic types of projects. In general, 50% of total RCPP funding is reserved for projects that are located within designated Critical Conservation Areas (“CCAs”), and the other 50% is allocated for state and multi-state projects administered at a local level, and located outside of any CCA. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.4(a). CCAs are geographical areas identified by NRCS that contain one or more critical conservation conditions that can be addressed through the RCPP. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.3. Currently, NRCS has designated the following as CCAs: Chesapeake Bay watershed; Colorado River Basin; Great Lakes region; Longleaf Pine range; Mississippi River basin; Northeast Forest and Waters; Prairie Grasslands region; and Western Waters.
While applications for other conservation programs may usually be submitted at any point, timing to apply for the RCPP is more limited. NRCS will periodically announce opportunities for partner entities to submit proposals for RCPP agreements. When announcing an application opportunity, NRCS will also provide the criteria that will be used to evaluate the proposals. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.20(a). Although proposals for CCA projects differ slightly from proposals for state and multistate projects, all RCPP partnership agreement proposals must include information about the scope of the proposed project; conservation benefits that the project will achieve; a monitoring plan; the estimated amount of funding requested; and each partner entity involved in the proposal. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.20(b).
If the partner entity is submitting a proposal for a CCA project, they must also show how the proposal would address one or more of the designated “priority resource concerns” for the CCA. NRCS is responsible for designating priority resource concerns for every CCA. In general, these are natural resource concerns within a CCA that can be addressed through conservation activities directed at improving water quality, increasing water quantity, restoring wildlife habitat, or contributing to any other natural resource improvements identified by NRCS. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.3. For example, a proposal for a project that would help conserve water in the Colorado River Basin CCA would directly address a designated natural resource concern for that area. Proposals for RCPP projects within CCAs are selected based on how they will address priority resource concerns. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.21(c).
When reviewing proposals for state and multi-state projects, NRCS will rank them according to various criteria. Proposals may be given a slightly higher priority for selection if they do any of the following: assist producers in meeting regulatory requirements related to a natural resource; can involve a high percentage of producers in the project area; build new relationships with local entities; or provide innovative conservation methods. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.21(b).
Once an RCPP project proposal is selected, NRCS works with the partner entities to develop the specifics of the project, and enter into a partnership agreement. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.22(a). Among other things, the partnership agreement will specify the scope of the project, identify how producers will be involved, define the project’s expected conservation benefits, and detail the amount of financial and technical assistance that NRCS will provide. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.22(d). Typically, partnership agreements will be in effect for no longer than five years unless a longer period of time is necessary to achieve the goals of the RCPP project. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.22(b). Once the partnership agreement expires, the project also concludes.
After NRCS and the partner entity solidify the partnership agreement, agricultural producers can begin applying for program contracts to participate in the project. Like the project proposals, the application process for program contracts is competitive. Any producer with land that is eligible for an RCPP project may submit an application to participate. From there, NRCS will group the applications for similar activities together and rank them against one another. Selection will be based on how well each application would address the overall goals of the specific RCPP project the producer has applied for. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.23. Once a producer’s application is selected, they will enter into a program contract that specifies which conservation activities the producer carry out, and the payments they will receive from NRCS. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.31. While RCPP project payments will come from NRCS, in general producers will work more closely with the partner entities in carrying out program contracts than with NRCS.
Both partner entities and agricultural producers have to meet certain eligibility requirements in order to participate in the RCPP. There are also eligibility requirements for the types of activities that can be covered under the RCPP, and for the land that can be enrolled in the program.
In order for an entity or organization to become an RCPP partner entity, it must be one of the following:
- An agricultural producer association, or other group of producers;
- A unit of state or local government, including conservation districts;
- A federal Indian tribe;
- A farmer cooperative;
- An institute of higher education;
- An organization that has authority to make water deliveries to farmers, such as an irrigation district or rural water district;
- A municipal or wastewater treatment facility;
- Any organization that has a history of working cooperatively with agricultural producers on agricultural land to address local conservation issues; or
- Any other entity specifically identified by NRCS
7 C.F.R. § 1464.5(b). If an entity falls into one of the above categories, it meets the eligibility requirements for the RCPP and may submit a project proposal and enter into a partnership agreement with NRCS.
Agricultural producers must also satisfy eligibility requirements in order to apply for approved RCPP projects. Along with being in compliance with other conservation laws such as a the Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation provisions, eligible producers must have sufficient control of their land to implement conservation activities, provide NRCS with any requested information, and provide a list of all members if the producer is a joint operation. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.5(c). Producers that meet those eligibility requirements will be able to apply for program contracts under the RCPP.
Whenever NRCS and a partner entity form a partnership agreement for an RCPP project, NRCS will identify the conservation activities that are eligible through the project. These activities may be related to land management, easement formation, or water conservation. Each RCPP project may use more than one eligible activity. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.5(e). Finally, land may only be considered eligible for enrollment in the RCPP if it private agricultural land on which “an eligible activity would help achieve the conservation benefits defined for an approve project[.]” 7 C.F.R. § 1464.5(d)(1). In other words, a producer may only enter land into an approved RCPP project if doing so would help to achieve the conservation goals of the project. Publicly owned agricultural land may also be enrolled in RCPP if it is appropriate for the conservation activities approved under the project, and the activities are “necessary” and will “contribute meaningfully” to furthering the conservation goals of the approved RCPP project. 7 C.F.R. § 1464.5(d)(2).
Like other conservation programs, the RCPP recently received new funding from the Inflation Reduction Act (“IRA”) passed by Congress and the President in August, 2022. In particular, the IRA set aside $4.95 billion to funding the RCPP from fiscal year 2023 through fiscal year 2026. According to the text of the statute, the IRA funding is conditioned on NRCS prioritizing partnership agreements that will “assist agricultural producers and nonindustrial private forestland owners in directly improving soil carbon, reducing nitrogen losses, or reducing, capturing, avoiding, or sequestering carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions associated with agricultural production.” H.R. 5376, 117th Cong. § 21001(a)(4)(B)(ii). In other words, NRCS is being asked to prioritize RCPP project proposals that would focus on capturing carbon or otherwise reducing emissions. To learn more about conservation provisions in the IRA, click here.
To read the section of the Farm Bill authorizing the RCPP, click here.
To read the regulations implementing the RCPP, click here.
For more information from NRCS on the RCPP, click here.
For more National Agricultural Law Center resources on conservation programs, click here.