White House Rural Council Blog

  • Conservation That Works

    I was recently in Atlanta, Georgia to speak at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference about Working Lands for Wildlife, a new effort to focus both conservation dollars and wildlife management expertise on the recovery of seven at-risk, threatened or endangered wildlife species. This unique approach to conservation concentrates federal resources on private working lands—home to a majority of candidate and listed species under the Endangered Species Act. Working Lands for Wildlife was developed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior through their membership in the White House Rural Council.

    Working with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners is critical to President Obama’s vision of an economy built to last, one where rural communities provide clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat to generate economic opportunities for outdoor recreation and jobs, while protecting farm and ranch traditions. Working Lands for Wildlife demonstrates the President’s focus on the rural economy and his commitment to keep working lands working.

    Knowing I was speaking to an audience passionate about wildlife, I took a moment to revisit a time from 100 years ago when Theodore Roosevelt addressed a similar group, saying, "There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country."  People of all political persuasions have found commonality around the fundamental principle of conservation—a principle that has always recognized the importance of wildlife.

    Working Lands for Wildlife is a partnership between the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make measurable progress in wildlife conservation through focused community-driven, locally led efforts across America.

    To engage private landowners, NRCS has committed $33 million to share in the cost of conservation practices benefiting the bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, New England cottontail and the Southwestern willow flycatcher. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will work to provide landowners with regulatory certainty and tools to assist them in making long-term business decisions.

    This collaborative approach builds on the success we are realizing in the Western U.S. with NRCS’s Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI), where ranchers are projected to have increased sage grouse populations by 8 to 10 percent through wildlife habitat conservation practices such as prescribed grazing, brush management and fence flagging.

    Through SGI, on the Bedortha Ranch in central Oregon, intensive efforts to boost sage grouse habitat are underway. As part of that effort, crews have cut and flattened invasive juniper trees. These trees have expanded beyond their historic locations into sagebrush terrain throughout the West, out-competing other valuable shrubs and plants that provide habitat for the ground-dwelling sage-grouse.

    Rancher Gary Bedortha

    Rancher Gary Bedortha removed nearly 7,000 acres of invading juniper on his ranch to improve his working lands for sage grouse habitat.

    As the junipers increased on his ranch, Gary Bedortha watched the sage-grouse population decline. “When I was a kid growing up in this country, I knew some of these draws had an excess of 100 sage grouse—you would ride through the draws and the whole ground would move in front of you. At that time, we didn’t have the juniper like we do now,” Bedortha said.

    This ranch is only one example of the success we can accomplish on private lands. Bedortha used the information and financial assistance he received from NRCS to remove nearly 7,000 acres of invading juniper in less than three years. We know taking a focused approach to wildlife conservation maximizes the public’s investment and return.

    We hope to increase populations for all seven focal species targeted by Working Lands for Wildlife. Americans dedicated to wildlife conservation on private lands will ensure that it is not only an effective tool for wildlife but that it works as a viable tool for outdoor recreation, jobs and opportunities to create rural wealth.

    Since the White House Rural Council was established last June, the Council has provided a forum for increasing conservation work and creating jobs in rural America. The Working Lands for Wildlife joint partnership between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior exemplifies the progress we can achieve through the work of the Rural Council.

    Harris Sherman is Undersecretary for USDA’s Natural Resources and Environment

  • White House Rural Council Sponsors "Working Lands and Healthy Watersheds Roundtable"

    Success Stories Highlighted

    On Wednesday, the White House Rural Council sponsored a Working Lands and Healthy Watersheds roundtable. The Rural Council, established last June, provides a forum for discussing how to support conservation work and create jobs in rural America. This week's roundtable brought together folks from across the country with experience in farming, ranching, conservation, and water quality to share their experience in how to more effectively and efficiently invest resources to improve water quality for rural communities.

    The roundtable was an opportunity to celebrate some of the good work already happening and to share innovative ideas for continuing progress. We heard how leaders from three states successfully used EPA Section 319 grant program and USDA Farm Bill conservation programs to improve water quality in critical watersheds. We also heard about what stakeholders most need to carry out new and long-term on-the-ground efforts, and how EPA and USDA can improve their support for those efforts at the local scale.

    Some of the themes that emerged from the session are:

    • Partnerships and On-the-Ground Leadership are essential to success. It takes time to forge the relationships that lead to results.
    • Stakeholder Education and Engagement helps landowners and producers understand their broader role and tie their actions to a broader community and mission. 
    • Using a Watershed Scale Approach creates a community for all who impact or depend on the watershed.
    • Flexibility is essential to success on the ground, and allows stakeholders to work strategically and to leverage resources to support watershed efforts.
    • Tracking the outcomes and impact of projects over time is critical to success and assists in identifying where further investments are needed.

    The nation's rural landowners, farmers, ranchers, and forest owners are often our best environmental stewards, providing clean water and wildlife habitat from the healthy, functioning watersheds on their lands. We are committed to supporting this good work, and look forward to continuing the conversation about partnerships that support farmers, ranchers, forest owners, and  the healthy watersheds communities depend on.

    Here's what some of the roundtable participants had to say about the discussion:

    Successful water quality improvement projects appear to be united by four primary themes. Positive relationships between landowners/land operators and the agency specialists that facilitate projects are a critical first step to success. Access to, and understanding of, water monitoring and practice performance data leads to setting goals, targeting implementation and measuring outcomes at the watershed level. Coordination and information sharing between partners expedites the process of implementing watershed improvement plans. Versatility in how funding can be used from public and private sources can lead to unexpected opportunities and benefits.

    It's easy to see we have the system in place to provide great technical expertise, but we need to incorporate lessons learned from watershed project successes around the country and utilize a strategy that facilitates and empowers watershed communities, priming individuals to act.

    ~ Chad Ingels, Extension Watershed Specialist, Iowa State University Extension

    Voluntary efforts to address nonpoint source pollution can work. The trick is you need strong partnerships with local entities like conservation districts that have a positive history with landowners You also must coordinate programs from EPA 319 and USDA to ensure you get the most bang for your buck. This, combined with monitoring data to assess the effects of best management practices on tributaries, has achieved show significant reductions in nonpoint source pollution in many priority watersheds.

    ~ Clay Pope, Executive Director, Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts

    Farmers in the U.S. have made tremendous strides over the past several decades toward increasing production while at the same time improving environmental conservation. EPA Section 319 grants and USDA Farm Bill conservation programs have played an important role in supporting the voluntary adoption of best management practices. Using a watershed approach, we are also able to more accurately measure how conservation practices are directly improving water quality in a particular region, which in turn helps farmers and landowners focus our efforts.

    As the world's population increases to 9 billion people by 2050, we understand that agricultural producers will be expected to do more with less. We have a finite amount of land, water and other natural resources; however, through research, technology development and support from federal programs, American farmers will continue to produce the most abundant and affordable supply of food, feed, fuel and fiber in the world. We will be equipped to meet growing demand while also preparing to pass along the land, better than we found it, to the next generation of producers.

    ~ Rod Snyder, National Corn Growers Association

    Ann Mills is Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA

    Larry Elworth is Chief Agriculture Counselor at EPA

  • Giving Doctors and Hospitals the Tools They Need to Provide Better Care

    Ed. note: This blog is cross-posted from HHS

    Last week, I visited the Metropolitan Community College where I toured the Virtual Hospital and Patient Simulation Lab. This facility is a great example of how Community Colleges are training the skilled workforce that is so critical to creating and running successful Health IT systems.

    When doctors and hospitals use Health IT, it reduces errors, cuts paperwork, and lowers costs. Over the past 3 years, the Obama Administration has made it a top priority to make it easier for doctors and hospitals to adopt Health IT.

    We’re providing incentive payments to hospitals and eligible providers to adopt electronic health records and use them to improve patient care. We created 62 Health IT Regional Extension Centers around the country to help health care providers take advantage of those incentives. Already, more than 120,000 primary care providers, including over 70% of rural primary care providers in small practices, have registered to use those incentives.

    At community colleges we’re training the skilled workforce that is essential to sustaining this investment. More than 9,000 community college students have already completed Health IT training through federally supported workforce programs, with thousands more enrolled.

    And last week, we announced that these investments are already making a difference. New data shows that nearly 2,000 hospitals and more than 41,000 doctors have received $3.1 billion in incentive payments for meaningful use of Health IT, particularly certified Electronic Health Records (EHR).  Meaningful use requires doctors to give their patients a summary of their office visit. Like a receipt, this clearly explains at a glance the care the patient received and the next steps for both the patient and provider.

  • “Life is a Highway: Rural Tourism and the Prospects of Economic Opportunity”

    The President recently unveiled an ambitious plan to make the United States the #1 tourist destination in the world. Each year, tens of millions of people from around the world visit the U.S. In 2010, the travel and tourism industry generated over $134 billion dollars for the American economy and tourism supported 7.5 million jobs.   

    The President wants to build upon this success, and recently announced steps to ease the international arrival and admissions process for tourists to visit the United States. Frequent travelers who pass an extensive background check will be able to scan their passports and fingerprints and skip long lines at immigration at more airports through the Global Entry Program. As a result of the President’s action, the U.S. will expand the number of countries where visitors can get pre-cleared by Homeland Security so they don’t need a tourist visa. And we’re going to speed up visa processing for countries with growing middle classes that can afford to visit America – countries like China and Brazil. 

    I want to take a moment to highlight what these actions mean for Rural America. The iconic images of Rural America’s assets – our farms and ranches, historic sites and small towns, and national parks, forests and seashores – are powerful motivators for international travelers who choose to spend their vacation time and money in America. Visitors in search of a memorable American experience encounter a wealth of attractive tourism opportunities in our country’s rural landscapes and communities.

  • Regional Planning – Key to Rural Economic Strength

    Ed. note: This blog is cross-posted from USDA.gov.

    Both of us grew up in small towns, Kathleen in Greenfield, MA and Bob in Ancram, NY.  From our own experiences, we understand the challenges and the importance of a strong rural economy.

    We recently visited Brevard, a town of about 6,000 people in North Carolina’s Transylvania County. While there we held a White House Rural Council meeting at the Transylvania County Library with leadership from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, the regional economic development commission AdvantageWest, business leaders from Asheville and Brevard, and several local elected officials. We released a report from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities, at Brevard College, which focuses on how the federal government can help rural areas to be economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable.

    One theme that was discussed at the Rural Council roundtable was the need for communities to be solution oriented by setting priorities and realistic goals for the direction they want their region to head. In Transylvania County, about 1/6th of the residents used to work in the paper mill business, an industry that is no longer there. So the county is working within the region to figure out how they can build a sustainable community for the future, one that recognizes the great economic value of the water, farmland and forests in Western North Carolina.

    Participants asked about how communities can continue economic growth with declining Federal, state and local resources.  We spoke about the need for regional planners to get the right people around the table in order to create a clear vision in the community so that they can make the best use of Federal funding to form partnerships and leverage private sector development. Because ultimately, the economy in Brevard, like the small towns we grew up in, is linked to the rest of the region.

  • White House Rural Council Feedback Report

    Since the establishment of the White House Rural Council in June, President Barack Obama, a number of senior Administration officials and I met with folks throughout the country to better understand the challenges and opportunities facing rural America. By hosting the White House Rural Economic Forum in Peosta, Iowa, as part of the President’s three-day Bus Tour in August, in addition to nearly 200 roundtable discussions with business and agricultural leaders in rural communities, we learned what rural Americans think are the most important issues to ensure that their future is bright and prosperous.

    A summary of the places we visited and many of things we learned is encapsulated in the White House Rural Council feedback report (pdf), which is now available. 

    To be sure that we heard the voices of rural Americans from every corner of the nation, Obama Administrations officials traveled to 46 states and held nearly 200 forums to determine how folks in Washington, D.C. can improve our efforts on creating jobs and spurring economic growth.  We heard from local citizens on several key topics ranging from ways to build small business and strengthen the middle class in rural America, to plans for building economic opportunity for rural business through infrastructure investment. From these discussions, we were able to not only identify key themes and issues but also identify ways in which to improve our country.