Commentary - July 22nd, 2013
9:41 am
Tue July 23, 2013

Forestry and the Farm Bill

As the U.S. House and Senate inched towards a Conference Committee on the farm bill last week, some believe the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill in 2012 (instead passing a nine-month extension), and the current stalemate, illustrates how impotent this policy has become.  Some believed the extension was a gift to the taxpayer, who would have been stuck with paying for potentially exorbitantly expensive insurance, and price support subsidies, while others believed the extension eviscerated a score of important programs.

With Congressional leaders, on both sides of the aisle, searching for inefficient, wasteful and outdated programs, at a time when federal budget deficits have simply become unsustainable; one thing is for sure, instead of addressing the urgent challenges our farm, food and wood fiber system faces, the farm bill has become a patchwork of programs that not only fails to support each other, but are often contradictory.  Without a larger discussion about long-term goals for a system we want and can afford, this failure is no surprise.

A potential solution being brought forward by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) is the replacement of permanent agricultural laws from 1938 and 1949 with the commodity title, which would allow the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as SNAP or food stamps, to continue as an appropriated entitlement rather than be formally reauthorized. 

It is still unclear when the House will agree to a conference committee and whether negotiators can produce a bill that could pass that chamber.  Early indications are that the republican version of the bill will be unacceptable to nearly all democrats.  Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) formally requested a conference on the farm bill last week, while she and other Senate leaders joined Administration officials in chastising the House for separating farm programs from SNAP. 

A group of republican House members began meeting last week to discuss the stand-alone nutrition title, and published reports indicated they were considering cuts in the neighborhood of $120 to $130 billion dollars over ten years, six times greater than the amount the original farm bill would have cut.  If the Senate conferees demand a conference report that includes nutrition programs, it is unclear whether House conferees would report it back to the House, or whether it could even pass if they did.

Unfortunately, many good programs funded by the farm bill are caught in the food stamp crossfire. Forest management, as well as forest research and forestry assistance, has long been within the jurisdictions of the Agriculture Committees. Although most forestry programs are permanently authorized, forestry has usually been addressed in the periodic farm bills. The 2008 farm bill contained a separate forestry title, with provisions establishing national priorities for forestry assistance.  These provisions required statewide forest assessments and strategies; provided competitive funding for certain programs; created new programs for open space conservation and for emergency reforestation; and prohibited imports of illegally logged wood products.

Forestry provisions were included in other titles as well—the conservation title revised the definition of conservation actions to include forestry activities for all conservation programs; the trade title required special reporting on softwood lumber imports; the energy title established two woody biomass energy programs; and the tax title included three provisions altering tax treatments for forests and landowners. 

These are all good provisions and are awaiting reauthorization.  In addition, the 2013 House and Senate versions include several new and important forestry related provisions, with the majority originating in the House version.  Provisions include codifying the Silvicultural Rule, repealing the Administrative Appeals Act, extending Stewardship Contracting, expanding forest health by including a 10,000 acre categorical exclusion for hazardous fuel reduction projects, expanding the Good Neighbor Authority, a categorical exclusion for salvage projects after a declared disaster, and a “know your customer” provision directing the U.S. Forest Service to analyze how the National Forests are meeting the needs of nearby wood consumers.

The farm bill is reauthorized every five years.  Assuming Congress will find a path forward and pass a bill this year, now is the time to address the many challenges facing our farm, food and wood fiber systems before the 2013 farm bill expires in 2018.   We need a public policy agenda that supports a fair and sustainable system that builds resiliency and is able to withstand shocks in the market place, climate-induced events, and many other economic and environmental challenges.

On behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association, I am Julia Altemus, thanks for listening.

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