GRAND FORKS - A new conservation program the U.S. Department of Agriculture rolled out this week focuses on public-private partnerships and has “huge potential” for North Dakota, the country’s top ag official said Friday.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the Regional Conservation Partnership Program on Tuesday and highlighted some of the program’s features Friday in an interview with the Grand Forks Herald.

“This is a new, innovative approach in which we want folks locally to work together with new partnerships to put together a plan and a set of projects most beneficial to the area in the form of conservation,” Vilsack said.

Those partners could include private companies, universities, state and local governments, tribal governments, water districts and nonprofit organizations, among others, working with producers on proposed conservation initiatives.

The new conservation program combines four existing programs - the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative and the Great Lakes Basin Program for Soil Erosion - into one.

The program will allow local partners to compete for funds specific to their region, Vilsack said. In North Dakota, that could be flood reduction in the Red River Valley, he said, while mitigating drought might be a focus somewhere else.

USDA is providing $400 million the first year and $1.2 billion during the course of the five-year program, Vilsack said. The hope is that participating partners will leverage an equal amount of funding for a total investment of $2.4 billion during the next five years.

“It’s a new way of doing business,” Vilsack said. “We strongly believe innovation is going to be a hallmark of this approach.”

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will allocate funds for the program from three funding pools:

- 35 percent will be directed to critical conservation areas, chosen by the agriculture secretary.

- 40 percent to regional or multistate projects through a national competitive process.

- 25 percent to state-level projects through a competitive process established by NRCS state leaders.

Local partners then will design projects specific to their region.

“What this does is it expands beyond the traditional notion of Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever-type operations, which have been extraordinarily helpful” to conservation efforts, Vilsack said.

North Dakota is among a dozen states Vilsack placed in a critical Prairie Grasslands conservation area, allowing the state to compete for funds only available to critical conservation area states. Other critical conservation areas are the Great Lakes Region, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Mississippi River Basin, Longleaf Pine Range, Columbia River Basin, California Bay Delta and the Colorado River Basin.

The Prairie Grasslands area, which also includes western Minnesota, South Dakota and the eastern two-thirds of Montana, cuts a swath through the central U.S. as far south as Texas and northeast New Mexico.

“It really gives people flexibility, and again, the partnerships are going to be unique,” Vilsack said. “It’s not going to be NRCS contracting with a single farmer on a one-off basis. It will be groups getting together and saying, ‘What are our needs?’ “

USDA already is accepting proposals for the new program. Initially, Vilsack said the agency is expecting partners to submit one- to two-page “pre-proposals,” which NRCS then will review to “separate the wheat from the chaff.”

The deadline for pre-proposals is July 14, and partners in projects that make the first cut will be notified and asked to put together a more complete proposal by September; the hope, Vilsack said, is to award successful projects by October.

He said the program has been well-received by conservation groups, hunters and anglers because of the opportunity it presents to grow habitat.

“We’ve learned from previous experiences on a much smaller scale that these more regionally, locally driven efforts result in combinations of conservation activities that have bigger bang for the buck,” Vilsack said.