TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture is teaming with businesses, nonprofits and others on a five-year, $2.4 billion program that will fund locally designed soil and water conservation projects nationwide, Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Authorized by the new farm law enacted earlier this year, the Regional Conservation Partner-ship Program is intended to involve the private sector more directly in planning and funding environmental protection initiatives tied to agriculture.
"It's a new approach to conservation that is really going to encourage people to think in very innovative and creative ways," Vilsack said.
He described the projects to be funded as "clean water start-up operations" that will benefit communities and watersheds, a departure from the department's more traditional approach of focusing on individual operators adopting practices such as no-till cultivation or planting buffer strips to prevent runoff into streams.
Universities, local and tribal governments, companies and sporting groups are among those eligible to devise plans and seek grants.
"This program is a recognition that a coordinated and comprehensive effort is more effective than the USDA operating on its own and Ducks Unlimited operating on its own and the Kellogg Foundation operating on its own," Vilsack said.
In addition to protecting the environment, the projects will bolster the rural economy by supporting tourism and outdoor recreation jobs while avoiding pollution that would cost more to clean up, he said.
USDA will spend $1.2 billion -- including $400 million the first year -- and raise an equal amount from participants. Successful applications will include offers of cash, labor or other contributions, as well as plans for achieving measurable solutions and using new approaches, said Jason Weller, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Vilsack was announcing the program in Michigan, home state of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, primary writer of the farm bill with Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. A news conference was scheduled in Bay City near Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, where nutrient runoff from croplands causes algae blooms that degrade water quality.