USDA, Partners to Invest Millions in Large-Scale, Targeted Conservation Projects

New Hampshire leads $5.2 million regional Young Forest Initiative For At-Risk Species, including the New England cottontail.

DOVER, NH – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on February 12, 2016, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and partners across the nation together will direct up to $720 million towards 84 conservation projects that will help communities improve water quality, combat drought, enhance soil health, support wildlife habitat and protect agricultural viability. These projects make up the second round of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) created by the 2014 Farm Bill.

New England cottontail in cover

The New England cottontail, at at-risk species, will gain habitat created by private landowners aided by the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Other young forest wildlife will benefit as well./C. Fergus

Through the 2015 and 2016 rounds, USDA and partners are investing up to $1.5 billion in 199 strategic conservation projects. Projects are selected on a competitive basis, and local private partners must be able to at least match the USDA commitment. For this round, USDA received 265 applications requesting nearly $900 million, or four times the amount of available federal funding. The 84 projects selected for 2016 include proposed partner matches totaling over $500 million, more than tripling the federal investment alone.

“The Regional Conservation Partnership Program puts local partners in the driver’s seat to accomplish environmental goals that are most meaningful to that community,” Vilsack said.

“Joining together public and private resources also harnesses innovation that neither sector could implement alone.

“We have seen record enrollment of privately owned lands in USDA’s conservation programs,” Vilsack added, “and the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program will be instrumental in building on those numbers and demonstrating that government and private entities can work together for greater impacts on America’s communities.”

RCPP draws on local knowledge and networks to fuel conservation projects. Bringing together a wide variety of new partners including businesses, universities, non-profits and local and Tribal governments makes it possible to deliver innovative, landscape- and watershed-scale projects that improve water quality and quantity, wildlife habitat, soil health and other natural resource concerns on working farms, ranches and forests.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) helps landowners plan and carry out projects supported by USDA funding.

The Young Forest Initiative for At-Risk Species features:

  • Proposed NRCS Investment: $5.2 million
  • Lead Partner: Wildlife Management Institute
  • Participating States: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire (lead state), New York, Rhode Island and Vermont

The Young Forest Initiative for At-Risk Species will help increase technical and financial assistance to non-industrial private forestland owners who implement conservation practices outlined in NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentives Program that result in an increase in the quantity and quality of young forest habitats. This support is critical, since young forest habitat is necessary to meet the needs of several recognized at-risk species, including the New England cottontail.

Over the last decade, conservationists in New England and New York have made excellent progress in helping the New England cottontail, which was earlier considered a candidate for inclusion on the Endangered Species list overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cooperation between a wide variety of partners resulted in the Service removing the New England cottontail as a candidate species in 2015. However, conservationists also realize that creating young forest habitat requires an ongoing commitment and effort. Many other kinds of wildlife also use young forest habitat created and refreshed for New England cottontails.

Concerning the Young Forest Initiative for At-Risk Species program, “We put out a call for innovative and results-focused projects that will deliver the most conservation impact,” said Rick Ellsmore, NRCS State Conservationist in New Hampshire. “Our partners answered with creative, locally-led approaches to help producers support their ongoing business operations and address natural resource challenges in their communities, here in New Hampshire, and across the nation.”

Since 2009, USDA has invested more than $29 billion nationwide to help producers make conservation improvements, working with as many as 500,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to protect over 400 million acres, boost soil and air quality, clean and conserve water and enhance wildlife habitat. For an interactive look at USDA's work in conservation and forestry, visit