Julia Altemus Commentary: “Why Forests in the Farm Bill?”

Forestry programs have long been addressed in agriculture legislation and in US Farm Bills. So, why forests in the Farm Bill? The 1877 Agriculture Appropriations Act designated initial federal forestry funds for a study of western forests leading to the US Department of Agriculture establishing the Division of Forestry in 1881. In 1905, the forest reserves (under the Department of Interior) transferred to the Department of Agriculture, creating a new agency – the Forest Service. Even though the Forest Service has been funded through the annual Interior Appropriations Act since 1955, federal forestry has
historically been associated with agriculture and with agriculture legislation.
Congress has passed ten Farm Bills since 1965. In the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress recognized and affirmed the importance of our nation’s forests to our economic vitality and quality of life, by placing forest conservation on par with agriculture land conservation, and added new opportunities to improve management of private forestlands.

Some important programs included the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which increased funding for forests by nearly 134 percent from 2007 to 2009, and the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program quadrupled funding for forests to almost $8 million during the same period. In 2009, the Forest Stewardship Program helped nearly 16,000 forest owners develop management plans covering over 2 million acres, bringing the total acreage covered by stewardship plans to 34 million.

While the amount of forestland and agriculture land is similar, there are 11 million private forest owners in America, compared with two million farmers. Forestry and related industries directly and indirectly
support more than 2.8 million family-wage jobs. Ninety-two percent of trees harvested for wood products come from private forests, yet investment in forests in farm bills lags significantly behind funding percentages for farmers. Since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, forests are under even greater pressure from societal, economic and environmental threats. In June of 2010, state forestry agencies completed Statewide Forest Resource
Assessments and Strategies, which was an important outcome of the 2008 Farm Bill. A number of threats were indentified including: loss of forestland to commercial and residential development, impaired forested watersheds, infestations of invasive species and other insects and diseases, increasing impacts of climate change, and increasing wildfires in the urban interface.

This year, Congress has an opportunity to expand on the 2008 Farm Bill and address these escalating threats. As members head into the August recess, what was accomplished? On June 21, the Senate passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill by repealing several very important forestry assistance programs effective October 1, 2012.
The Senate also eliminated the permanent authority and annual appropriations for the Forest Stewardship Program, the Forest Legacy Program, and the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation programs and substituted capped funding through September 2017, depending upon availability of funds. Considering the escalating threats to forests and communities, repealing permanent authority for several essential forestry programs and forest management tools and capping others over a span of time, is short sighted.
The Senate did manage to include the mountain pine beetle on the list of insect infestations identified by Congress and authorized an increase in funding from $100 million to $200 million annually through fiscal year 2017, to address the mountain pine beetle outbreak. The Senate also gave permanent authority to 5 to 10-year stewardship contracts to achieve land management goals on National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management lands. On July 11 however, the House acted more responsibly by adding new programs to the Farm Bill that will serve to address forest health conditions. Programs that expand the Good Neighbor Authority to all National Forest System lands, allowing the Forest Service to contract with states to do hazardous fuels reduction and other projects, and authorized expedited treatments for “critical areas” designated as
suffering from “insect infestation, drought, disease, or storm damage”, or at “future risk of insect infestations or disease outbreaks.”

The health of America’s forests is critical to the future of our economy and quality of life. Forests provide clean drinking water, critical aquatic, avian and terrestrial habitats, recreational opportunities, renewable energy and products. While the conservation title in the Farm Bill once provided many tools for foresters to manage timberlands, these and additional efforts to preserve and improve our nation’s forests are important and certainly worthy of congressional support. It is now up to the House and Senate to reconcile differences in the two bills and to make sure programs in-deed address current and future
forest conditions.

Julia Altemus writes on behalf of the Montana Wood Products Association.

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