WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman has announced the release of an interim final rule to implement the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), authorized in the 2002 farm bill. The GRP helps landowners restore and protect grassland, rangeland, pastureland, shrubland and certain other lands and provides assistance for rehabilitating grasslands.

“This administration is committed to providing voluntary conservation programs that promote a healthy environment. Our nation’s grasslands provide significant ecological benefits and play a key role in environmental quality,” said Veneman. “This program conserves grasslands and helps maintain viable ranching and farming operations.”

By issuing an interim final rule with request for public comments, USDA can conduct a program sign-up and implementation this fiscal year, according to the rule. USDA will consider all comments received during a 60-day public comment period in developing a final GRP rule.

USDA announced earlier this year that nearly $70 million in fiscal year 2004 funding is available for the program ($54.2 million financial assistance and $15.3 million technical assistance).

The interim final rule will be published in the Federal Register soon, and the public will have 60 days to comment on the rule. It states that GRP rental agreements and easements are designed for working agricultural lands and describes multiple enrollment duration options. Applications for GRP enrollment can be filed at any time throughout the year.

Applications will be rated based on ranking and selection criteria developed in the states following broad national guidelines. USDA proposes that land eligibility criteria should focus on preserving the nation’s most critical grassland resources, the native and natural grasslands and shrublands.

Last year, USDA conducted the first nationwide sign-up for GRP based on the “Notice of Availability of Program Funds for the Grassland Reserve Program,” published in the Federal Register on June 13, 2003. The notice applied only to fiscal year 2003 funds and the initial sign-up.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Service Agency and Forest Service are coordinating implementation of GRP.

For more information on GRP and other conservation programs, contact your local USDA Service Center, listed in the telephone book under U.S. Department of Agriculture, or online at http://offices.usda.gov. Additional GRP information is available at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/grp.