Opinion by Tom Vilsack
Conserving and Restoring America’s Natural Resources
By Tom Vilsack, U.S. Agriculture Secretary
Every day, the work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conserve America’s lands and natural resources stretches across our nation. As President Obama and I work together to boost the rural economy and create jobs across America, it’s important to recognize the strength we draw as a nation from our forests, grasslands, farms, ranches, rivers and wilderness areas.
And it’s even more important that we all work together to protect them.
In 2010, President Obama established the “America’s Great Outdoors” initiative to help reconnect Americans to the land, promote recreation and tourism that bring jobs to rural communities and build on America’s long history of conservation.
USDA has played an integral role in this effort, and we’ve achieved historic results to help restore, protect and conserve our natural resources.
Under the Obama Administration, USDA has enrolled a record amount of private working lands into conservation programs that help landowners protect clean water, conserve habitat and benefit our environment. In fact, we’ve worked with more than half a million private landowners, farmers and ranchers to improve conservation practices on their land.
For example, through a commitment to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), over the last three years we’ve enrolled over 12 million acres while also targeting the program to the most environmentally-sensitive lands – protecting farmland and providing economic benefits on the farm and in rural communities. This spring we announced a special initiative through CRP to protect a million acres of wetlands, grasslands and wildlife habitat in partnership with farmers.
Under the Wetlands Reserve Program we’ve seen similar interest, enrolling more than 650,000 acres nationwide since 2009 to improve water and soil quality.
On our 193 million acre National Forest lands, the USDA Forest Service has developed a new “planning rule” to manage and restore our national forests so that they are more resilient to wildfire and so they continue to conserve our water resources and wildlife while providing jobs and opportunity in local communities. And we’ve accelerated forest restoration work on public and private lands by treating more than 12 million acres over the past three years to sustain, enhance or restore watershed function and resilience.
USDA’s innovative targeting of conservation funding through 19 landscape-scale initiatives – from the Great Lakes to western sagebrush rangeland to the Longleaf Pine forests of the southeast – is helping generate three to five times the benefits of more general approaches. Our voluntary efforts with farmers are reducing nutrient runoff to rivers and streams by as much as 45 percent.
These investments are helping rural communities create jobs while ensuring sustainable lands. They’re supporting a strong rural economy. They’re giving rural Americans new opportunities to give back to the land, a long-held American value that’s rooted in our small towns and rural communities.
I’m proud that under President Obama, we’ve taken historic action to preserve natural resources, farmland and wild areas for future generations. I know that these restoration efforts, taking place every day across America, will continue providing an economic boost for agriculture and rural communities, while helping to protect the natural resources and pristine lands that we all hold dear.