Farm Bill’s Conservation Program Puts Tribal Enviro Efforts on Level Ground

By AJ Earl

The 2018 Farm Bill, an $867 billion piece of legislation currently stalled in Congress, is set to continue a landmark collaborative program that has offered Indian Country a chance to work on conservation with tribes in the lead.

The land, water and air conservation program, called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, or RCPP, provided $27 million to tribally-managed conservation programs in 2016 alone, according to Colby Duren, the Initiative Policy Director and Staff Attorney for the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative. These partnerships represent a portion of the 2,000 partnerships undertaken through RCPP.

“In the last Farm Bill, there were originally 26 conservation programs, some of them were more regional, and so [Congress] got rid of some of the more regional-focused ones, then put it together as a larger RCPP,” Duren said.

The RCPP debuted with the 2014 Farm Bill and despite difficulties faced in Congress, it is unlikely that RCPP will go away.

“I think the RCPP will be one that will probably stay around, just because of how successful it’s been and how much money has been involved in it, and I think just because it involves so many different partnerships as well,” Duren said.

Funding, Duren added, looks to be unchanged.

Now sturdy, program has benefits from coast to coast

Zach Ducheneaux, a Cheyenne River Sioux rancher, is the Program Manager at the Intertribal Agriculture Council.

“The RCPP has been a beneficial tool for Indian Country, the conservation programs have been a lot more accessible for Indian Country in the past 15 years because of the work of the Intertribal Agriculture Council and others,” Ducheneaux said.

Partnerships under the RCPP have included the Innovative Tribal Conservation and GHG Management program, a $1.8 million program initiated in fiscal year 2014-15 to help develop land management and conservation plans with a focus on reducing greenhouse gases. The State of South Dakota and the Intertribal Agriculture Council were the lead partners on this project.

Before RCPP and its predecessor programs, Native-led conservation programs were hard to fund through the federal government. According to Ducheneaux, tribes didn’t have equity in the process until 1990.

“I can’t even imagine the conversation when my boss and his boss first went to [Washington,] D.C. and said, ‘Indian Country has been left out,’” he said.

“I can’t imagine how many offices they got laughed out of before they were able to succeed.”

Regardless, Ducheneaux says, there is still work to be done at the state level. For example, while South Dakota dedicates 90 percent of equipment payments toward Indian Country, it is an exception, and nearly every other states is still playing catch-up with laws that were changed from those originally drafted in the 1930s.

Ultimately, the RCPP represents a major opportunity in a limited universe of government assistance.

The Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative, Chickasaw Nation citizen Janie Simms Hipp, made the stakes clear.

The United States Department of Agriculture is the last federal agency with oversight on rural lands where a majority of Indian Country’s land base exists, according to Simms.

“We have underutilized—we meaning all tribal governments, all tribes, and all Indian people—have underutilized the Farm Bill over time for a lot of reasons, but the reality is if you deconstruct [the USDA] then you’re really undercutting all of rural America, and that’s going to be devastating to all of us,” said Simms.

Congress has until Sept. 30 to compromise on the two versions of the Farm Bill.

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