Assistance to Farmers and Ranchers in 11 Western State to Increase Sage Grouse Populations and Enhance Habitats

Press Conference

By:  Thomas Vilsack
Date: Aug. 1, 2011
Location: Unknown



United States Secretary of Agriculture


(Time not given.)

SUSAN: Hello, everyone. And thank you for joining us for today's media briefing.

We have Agriculture Secretary Vilsak on the line and he's going to be talking about assistance to farmers and ranchers in 11 western states to increase sage grouse populations and enhance habitats. If you'd like to get in on the call let us know by pressing *1 on your touch tone pad.

And now I turn it over to the Secretary.

SECRETARY VILSAK: Susan, thank you very much and thanks to everyone who is on the call today.

I think it's important for producers, ranchers, and farmers in the western part of the United States that they feel very strongly about the importance of regulatory certainty. And working with the Department of the Interior we are working together with our producers in the western part of the United States to avoid having the sage grouse be placed on the Endangered Species List.

We're doing this by working with landowners and identifying over 40 practices that will benefit the sage grouse and encouraging landowners with the utilization of our conservation programs to basically utilize a sweep of practices within those 40 identified practices.

In the past three years, we've committed $112 million to this sage grouse initiative in 11 states using 5 separate programs, most significantly which is the EQIP Program, the Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Program, WRP, and several other programs.

This is encouraging, sustainable grazing systems to improve cover, high-risk fencing, breeding sites, removing the base of conifers and other steps designed to make it easier for sage grouse to survive.

Today, we announce an additional $21.8 million dollars dedicated to the State of Wyoming to provide it with the resources to continue to encourage these types of conservation practices. We also are announcing additional resources within that $21.8 million to speed up the process in the 11 states that are currently participating in the program in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. These resources will provide 16 additional new positions that will be --individuals who will be providing technical assistance to assist land owners in implementing the conservation practices in the 11 states that are participating in the program.

This is a great opportunity to showcase not just our conservation programs, but also to give landowners that regulatory certainty that they need to be able to feel comfortable about making investments and it is reflective of the public/private partnership that our conservation programs are enhancing.

I'm down in Florida today where we made the largest announcement in the history of the NRCS to a single state at one time, $100 million announcement to the northern Everglades to assist in the purchase of permanent easements and development rights on a significant water quality initiative in the State of Florida that's going to not only provide for better water, but also job growth and economic growth in the Northern Everglades area. So this is an important and big day for the NRCS and for conservation in both the southeast and in the western part of the country.

SUSAN: All right, Mr. Secretary, thank you. As you heard, reporters, the Secretary talked about a couple of items. Not only did he mention the Natural Resources and Conservation Services sage grouse initiative, but he also talked about major projects designed to restore and protect wetlands in the northern Everglades watershed.

If you want to ask questions of the Secretary on either of these two subjects, please let us know by pressing *1 on your touch tone pad.

As we wait for people to call, Mr. Secretary, as you said, these are very important to what the NRCS is doing. Can you elaborate on that?

SECRETARY VILSAK: Susan, I think the most important thing on the sage grouse initiative is that this is an effort on our part to make it easier for producers. Obviously, when you're faced with a possibility of an endangered species that could potentially put additional burdens on landowners, in an effort to try to avoid that, we're working with landowners now to avoid that determination having to be made by identifying conservation practices that will most likely increase the sage grouse population.

And then providing an additional element which is this notion of regulatory certainty that if, in fact, landowners utilize these conservation practices they will be in compliance should the Department of the Interior list the sage grouse as an endangered species. So it really provides them a good deal of certainty so as they make investments in the fencing, when they make investments in sustained grazing systems, when they make investments in removing invasive coverage and other practices, they will have the assurance that the monies that they're investing and spending in partnership with NRCS and USDA will not lead to additional burdens after they've made these investments.

So that's extremely important. And because these resources are focused on conservation, it's also an opportunity for job growth in the western part of the United States. People have to essentially implement these practices and as they implement these practices they often use local contractors. So there's a job component and an economic growth component to this particular announcement and that certainly it's true of the Everglades announcement.

We know from a study done by the Everglades Foundation that every dollar that's invested in the Northern Everglades will generate $4 in economic activity. So it's clearly going to create hundreds and hundreds of jobs down here in Florida. So it's not just conservation. It's not just environment. It's a new partnership of landowners. It's an interesting relationship with two federal agencies focused on regulatory certainty and it's growing the economy.

SUSAN: All right then, reporters, to ask a question, let us know by pressing *1 on your touch tone pad. Our first caller is Tyranny Smith from

MS. SMITH: Hi, thank you for answering this call.

Secretary Vilsak, I was just wondering, can you please tell us the number of sage grouse that actually live in the 11 states? Thank you.

SECRETARY VILSAK: I don't know that number today, but we can certainly get that number to you. I mean it's obvious that I have been told that the steps being taken by land owners in the last couple of years has improved the populations, but I honestly can't give you a specific number of sage grouse in those states, but we'll get that to you.

MS. SMITH: Thank you.

SUSAN: Mr. Secretary, if you would, elaborate a little more on the northern Everglades watershed announcement that you made this morning?

SECRETARY VILSAK: It's $100 million being made available to purchase easements and development rights which means that the property will still be maintained by private ownership and private lands, but the development rights will have been essentially sold to the NRCS, so they will remain as an undeveloped area.

We will work with the landowners and using the technical assistance that's available through NCRS to restore wetlands which will provide natural filters. It will improve water storage and it will also improve the flow of water so that they can be better utilized by folks in Florida. And as I said before, it's obviously going to create a lot of economic activity.

It will, we believe, help to purchase roughly 24,000 acres of land. This complements the work that's been done the last three years by the Obama administration in purchasing roughly 26,000 acres of land for a total, obviously, of 50,000 acres committed to this effort, a total amount of $189 million in the three-year period that we talked about.

SUSAN: We have a couple of callers on the line. Let's go to Mead Gruver with the Associate Press Wyoming.

MR. GRUVER: Back to sage grouse if you don't mind.


MR. GRUVER: I was wondering if you could explain a little bit, please, about if the landowner receives funding to conserve habitat for sage grouse what that can mean for oil and gas and wind development on that same piece of property. As you know, we've got quite a bit of petroleum and wind development out here in Wyoming.

SECRETARY VILSAK: Well, these programs really are designed to focus on particular conservation practices and conservation techniques and technologies. They're not necessarily like other programs, designed to limit, if you will, the utilization of property. It's not like a CFP program where you're basically limited in terms of what you do.

What we are trying to do is we're trying to make sure that as our producers and ranchers and in harmony using their land, that they use it in a way with conservation programs that increases sage grouse numbers and essentially since there's a benefit of that they get paid for the cost share kind of activities. They get -- they don't have to spend quite as much of their own money. It's a partnership.

And at the same time they get, and I think this is the most important aspect of this, they get some degree of certainty. In the past, before we had this arrangement with the Department of the Interior, a landowner could enter into one of these arrangements with NRCS, do all this work, invest all this money, both the private sector money and the public sector money and then be told after the fact that it's not enough.

Here, we're saying essentially if you work with us, we're going to give you some assurance of certainty in terms of regulations which makes it a lot easier for folks to make the kinds of investment decisions they have to make. So it's not a restriction on the use of land.

Now if it gets into programs like the Farm and Range Protection Program or the Grasslands Protection Program, then there may be restrictions, but if you're looking at EQUIP or some of the other programs that are part of this effort, it doesn't necessarily restrict how you use your land.

SUSAN: Our next call comes from Greg Flattiger ((phonetic) with Casper Journal. Greg?

MR. FLATTIGER: Yes, Secretary Vilsak, on the $21.8 million, can people devise their own programs or is this going to be through the state or through the Federal Government? Sort of how is that money going to be spent and what are some of the restrictions on it?

SECRETARY VILSAK: The landowner will work with the NRCS to develop a plan of action using one of the five programs that is in this sage grouse initiative. Most often, landowners will like use the EQIP program, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program or the WHIP program, the Wildlife and Habitat Incentive Program, to essentially come up with a suite of practices, of steps that they will take and commit to. It may be moving a fence, an Irish (phonetic) fence that's right now near a breeding site. They may move it to a different location. There's costs associated with that. And so essentially the government helps defer a portion of that cost. It can be up to in some cases 75 percent of the cost. And so it's a partnership.

And again, in the past, that would be the end of it. It was essentially done for conservation practices or conservation reasons. But here, we've gone one step further and basically said look, as you put your plan together, if you use these practices that we've identified that will benefit the sage grouse, in exchange for your willingness to do that, not only will we provide resources to help you afford the cost of that practice, but we will also give you some degree that we're not going to come in after the fact if sage grouse is declared to be an endangered species, that somehow you'll be in violation. You'll actually be in compliance. So it's a new effort to really look at conservation creatively and to provide and to respond to the concerns that have been expressed to me by a lot of folks about the need for greater certainty in terms of regulatory practices. It's an effort that we're also attempting to do in other parts of the country with other conservation challenges that we face.

MR. FLATTIGER: Can I ask one more question? If I could, on federal land, is this going to apply to that as well, BLM, Forest Service land as well?

SECRETARY VILSAK: I think this is a private sector circumstance. I mean basically what we are -- obviously, in the management of our own lands, we should be sensitive to working to try to conserve in a way that is helpful and doesn't necessarily reduce populations of habitat. We actually want to encourage more of that because we see economic potential.

The American Great Outdoors Program that the President sponsored is really designed to reconnect people with the great outdoors and to make sure that communities understand the economic power of the national resources. Obviously, it's something that folks in the western part of the United States absolutely understand. They know that hunting and fishing are job creators. They know that there's money spent by people coming into states like Wyoming because you've got pristine areas. You've got unique hunting and fishing opportunities that people will pay significant amounts of money to come to and take advantage of.

And so what we want to do is be able to continue to enhance those types of opportunities and reconnect people with the outdoors.

SUSAN: All right, thank you, Greg. We have one caller on the line, Stuart Doan. with AgriPulse. Stuart?

MR. DOAN: Thank you, Susan. Mr. Secretary, on your trip to Florida you can visit the (inaudible) this afternoon. Generally speaking, are you satisfied with the pace with which industry is developing next generation biofuels? And secondly, you have maintained confidence all (inaudible) of the ability of the U.S. farmers to produce enough corn to meet all needs. Given the yield reductions that your Department issued this morning, is your view the same or has it changed some?

SECRETARY VILSAK: Stuart, let me answers your second question first. I still remain confident in part because in addition to the yield reductions that were discussion in the report, there was also discussion about in some areas not as much usage. So it's basically a balance. Ethanol, corn for ethanol was also reduced. So I think we'll still be able to meet the needs that we have in this country. And one of the great benefits.

I just read recently in terms of agricultural productivity generally, that the rest of the economy productivity in the last 50 years of the 20th century grew by roughly 50 percent. Agriculture productivity grew in that same time period by 200 percent.

And I know that there's research taking place in my home state right now, specifically relating to corn and how you can continue to increase the number of seeds planted per acre. One company is looking at the possibility of up to 60,000 seeds per acre.

So it's just an enormous capacity in American agriculture that's under appreciated and under realized and I think it's again a success story that paves the way for the rest of the economy and ought to be highlighted especially in this time when we're looking for answers. And I think part of the answer is in agriculture.

Because I answered that question so long, I kind of forgot the first question that you asked?

MR. DOAN: Yes, the (inaudible).

SECRETARY VILSAK: Right. The answer to that question is sort of yes and no. Obviously, we set a fairly robust set of goals with the original fuel standard which we have not met and as a result, EPA is constantly revising and adjusting.

Having said that, this is complicated. I'm down here today and I've been advised that we're going to be closing on the loan for the (inaudible) plants on Monday which is good news. Ground has been broken and I think you're going to see a significant acceleration now that we're beginning to get commercial size operations in basically ground-breaking facilities. We'll begin to see facilities in 2012. And from that we're going to learn what's working, what isn't working, what can be more efficient. And I think you're going to see a rapid acceleration.

I know that we've got four or five projects at USDA and I know the Energy Department has a number of projects. So I think you're going to see a rapid acceleration of this and I think it's so important because we can reduce our reliance on foreign oil, especially unstable and unsecured supplies of foreign oil in the Middle East.

We can generate jobs here in America. We can create more profitability for farms and land holdings in the United States, forested lands as well. I mean there's just a whole series of reasons why we should be bullish on this industry.

There will continually be ways and I'm looking for the Rural Forum next week because the President I believe is going to be making an announcement on a very unique way in which we're going to accelerate even further the steps we've taken in this area to create jobs and grow the economy. I think there's a lot of good news ahead and I think a lot of good progress that you'll see far more rapidly than we've had the last couple of years.

SUSAN: Stuart and everyone else that called in. Thank you, and that concludes briefly.

(Whereupon, the media briefing was concluded.)

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