TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - The U.S. Department of Agriculture is teaming with businesses, nonprofits, and others on a five-year, $2.4 billion program that will fund locally designed soil and water conservation projects nationwide, Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.

Authorized by the new farm law enacted earlier this year, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program is intended to involve the private sector more directly in planning and funding environmental protection initiatives tied to agriculture.

"It's a new approach to conservation that is really going to encourage people to think in very innovative and creative ways," Vilsack said.

He described the projects to be funded as "clean water start-up operations" that will benefit communities and watersheds, a departure from the department's more traditional approach of focusing on individual operators adopting practices such as no-till cultivation to prevent runoff into streams.

Universities, local and tribal governments, companies, and sporting groups are among those eligible to seek grants.

"By establishing new public-private partnerships, we can have an impact that's well beyond what the federal government could accomplish on its own," Vilsack said.

USDA will spend $1.2 billion - including $400 million the first year - and raise an equal amount from participants.

Vilsack announced the program in Michigan, home state of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, primary writer of the farm bill with Rep. Frank Lucas of Oklahoma. They held a news conference in Bay City near Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, where nutrient runoff from croplands degrades water quality.