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On Fort Stewart, Vilsack announces new regional conservation program
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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announces the launch of a new regional conservation program during a visit to Fort Stewart on Friday morning. - photo by Photo by Cailtin Kenney

During a Friday visit to Fort Stewart, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the launch of the 2016 Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which will invest a total of $720 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local partners in 84 conservation projects across the country, according to a news release.

“Created by the 2014 Farm Bill, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program is a partner-driven, locally led approach to conservation,” according to a USDA document on the RCPP’s 2016 investment in Georgia. “It offers new opportunities for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to harness innovation, welcome new partners to the conservation mission, and demonstrate the value and efficacy of voluntary, private lands conservation.”

“In 2016, NRCS is investing up to $220 million in 84 high-impact projects that impact every state in the nation, including two in Georgia,” the document continues. “This investment, which builds on the $370 million invested for 2014 and 2015, will help conservation partners and agricultural producers conserve natural resources, leading to cleaner and more abundant water, healthier soil, enhanced wildlife habitat and many other benefits.”

For 2015 and 2016, a total of $1.5 billion from USDA and partners will be invested in 199 strategic conservation projects, according to a USDA news release.

The Southern Sentinel Landscapes Conservation project, which includes Fort Stewart, will have an investment of $7.5 million of USDA money that will be matched by $10 million from partners in three states, Vilsack stated Friday.

The project “will protect and restore 17,500 to 21,500 acres of longleaf and other working forest habitats on private lands important for at-risk species,” according to the USDA document about the Georgia project.

“I think first of all it sends a message that the Department of Defense is aware of its responsibilities locally,” Vilsack said when asked how the project strengthens the partnership with Fort Stewart. “That it isn’t just about training soldiers to go someplace else to fight wars but it is actually an investment in the community that the defense department is willing to make.”

He added, “If you’re a landowner and we don’t maintain these tens of thousands of acres that surround this facility properly, and the habitat that’s at risk becomes endangered, then it’s not just the Defense Department that’s going to have responsibilities, it’s going to have every adjoining landowner and farmer and rancher in this state potentially having concerns. So it sends a message that the Defense Department is sensitive to its responsibilities to help the community avoid a regulation by just simply preserving and protecting the species.”

Tim Beaty, who was at Friday’s ceremony, is the chief of the Fish and Wildlife branch at Fort Stewart, and he manages the installation’s Army Compatible Use Buffer program.

“It’s just a great opportunity to leverage the efforts that we’re taking with the ACUB program with the NRCS and other partners and be able to accomplish more conservation on a larger scale, in a more meaningful way,” he said.

Beaty said Fort Stewart tries to integrate the missions of training and conservation, including making conservation efforts support the training mission.

“And we’re very fortunate here to have an ecosystem that depends on fire,” Beaty said. “The longleaf ecosystem needs fire just like the rain forest needs rain. And the Army is pretty good at starting fires,” from shooting on ranges to prescribed burns that reduce the wildfire risk from munitions.

Because of the post’s efforts to keep the ecosystem on Fort Stewart healthy, Beaty said the installation has been able to grow populations of endangered species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, which has reduced training restrictions.

Beaty added that he believes about $1 million of the $17.5 million Southern Sentinel Landscapes Conservation project will go directly to Fort Stewart, and local partners will match it, for about $2 million total.

“And that’s why partnership is so important,” he said. “Everybody likes to be able to go back and tell their headquarters that, hey, we just did $2 million worth of work with $1 million of our money. And everybody gets to say that and say it fairly and honestly.”

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