This 2014 photo provided by the The Nature Conservancy, shows sugar beats near Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay in Michigan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the first round of grants under a new program designed to encourage public-private partnerships for soil and water conservation. The Nature Conservancy received one of the grants. (AP Photo/The Nature Conservancy, Mary Fales)

This 2014 photo provided by the The Nature Conservancy, shows sugar beats near Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay in Michigan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the first round of grants under a new program designed to encourage public-private ... partnerships for soil and water conservation. The Nature Conservancy received one of the grants. (AP Photo/The Nature Conservancy, Mary Fales) (The Associated Press)

Federal government awards $340M in grants for conservation projects nationwide

Projects designed to cut down on fertilizer runoff, expand bird nesting areas and restore native grasslands are among those selected for funding under a new initiative that encourages conservation partnerships between government and private organizations, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

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The federal agency has approved 115 proposals in an initial round of funding under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which was authorized under national farm legislation that Congress enacted last year.

"This is a new approach to conservation," Vilsack told The Associated Press ahead of an announcement scheduled for Wednesday. "We're giving private companies, local communities and other non-government partners a way to invest in a new era in conservation that ultimately benefits us all."

The projects will share $340 million in federal funds, which will be matched by an estimated $400 million from participating groups. Over five years, the USDA expects to spend $1.2 billion and raise at least that much from participants such as businesses, universities, nonprofits, local governments and Native American tribes.

The department solicited applications for funding of locally designed ventures designed to improve soil health and water quality while promoting efficient use of water and creating more wildlife habitat. The typical project has 11 participating groups and agencies but some have dozens. That will boost support at the community level, Vilsack said.

"It's the local folks who know the landscape," the former Iowa governor said. "It's the local folks who will be able to encourage landowners to participate. I learned as governor that if I went out and encouraged a farmer to create a buffer strip between their land and a river or stream, I might not be as successful as a neighboring farmer or someone from Pheasants Forever would be."

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The program will support the rural economy, paying contractors and small businesses that will do the hands-on work, he said.

"Some of the largest investments our country will make for land and water conservation are through the farm bill," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat who sponsored the measure as former chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee.

Of the federal money, 40 percent went to multi-state and national projects, including $16 million to Vermont and New York for stepping up farming practices to benefit the Lake Champlain watershed and $10 million to help rice producers in six Southern and Midwestern states improve water and habitat stewardship.

An additional 35 percent went to projects in "critical conservation areas," including the Great Lakes region, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, the California Bay Delta, prairie grasslands, the South's Longleaf Pine Range and the Columbia, Mississippi and Colorado river basins.

State-level projects received the remaining 25 percent.

A $10 million grant will help improve water quality around Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, supporting measures to protect wetlands and reduce phosphorus runoff that causes algae blooms.

Researchers will use the grant funding to help farmers better target and plan nutrient management, limited tillage and other conservation practices, said Rich Bowman of The Nature Conservancy, which is leading the effort with the Michigan Agri-Business Association.

USDA received more than 600 grant proposals. Groups that weren't selected can try again for the next round of funding, said Jason Weller, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.