House panel hears importance of farm bill forestry programs

By Chris Heck

As part of an ongoing farm bill series, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry held a hearing last week on farm bill forestry initiatives. Earlier this month, the subcommittee heard testimony from NACD CEO Jeremy Peters on the importance of farm bill conservation programs.

Last Thursday’s hearing took a comprehensive look at all the forestry initiatives included in the farm bill – not just those that fall under the forestry title. The subcommittee received testimony from:

  • George Geissler, Oklahoma state forester and vice president of the National Association of State Foresters;
  • Susan Benedict, owner and operator of Beartown Family Limited Partnership;
  • Jim Neiman, vice president and CEO of Neiman Enterprises;
  • Becky Humphries, chief conservation and operations officer for the National Wild Turkey Federation; and
  • Tom Harbour, retired national director for the U.S. Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management division.

Kate Danks (left), Lincoln County district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Mike Kennedy, natural resources director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, examine a fallen tree that was removed during pre-commercial thinning. Photo courtesy of NRCS Oregon.

Early on in the proceedings, Geissler said “Strong partnerships between state forestry agencies and the federal agencies are critical to helping landowners manage their forests and to keeping the forests on the landscape that benefit all Americans.”

Programs like Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), he said, which received permanent reauthorization in the 2014 farm bill, help to encourage those close working relationships.

GNA allows states to act as ‘good neighbors’ with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to accomplish cross-boundary work. As the number of residents living in the wildland-urban interface grows, so too does the importance of our forestry program.

In recognition of the recent devastating wildfires in the Midwest, Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., highlighted excessive fuel loads not just on forestland but on our nation’s grassland as well. In just one week earlier this month, more than four million acres of rangeland burned. The chairman summed it up by saying “If you don’t manage that fuel load and you get a lightning strike… you get a heck of a mess.”

All five witnesses agreed that with the right policy changes put in place, forest management on public and private lands could be made easier. Harbour expressed his frustration with the federal policies he says have contributed to hazardous fuels build-up. “As a result, you get these high intensity fires that take lives. It’s wrong to put all the fires out all the tim … we can’t do it and we shouldn’t do it.”

Humphries and Neiman both spoke on the importance of increasing the use of categorical exclusions to reduce the red tape around forest management projects. Neiman also mentioned the importance of making sure such actions were being conducted “at as low a level as you can go” rather than at the national level.

When discussing the 2014 farm bill all of the witness expressed support for the expansion the forestry programs received but emphasized that there is still room for improvement.

In the next farm bill, the witnesses suggested Congress:

  • Expand Good Neighbor Authority;
  • Increase the flexibility of existing conservation programs, such as Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP);
  • Reauthorize the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP); and
  • Promote timber and biofuels markets.

Neiman suggested that cutting the number of grazing permits on national forests by roughly one-third over the past half-century has resulted in huge amounts of undergrowth. “You have undergrowth 10’ to 20’ feet in height in areas that should have had had prescribed burns years ago, but now provides three levels of fuel. You can’t stop (fires in those areas) without going in and doing some sort of treatment,” he said.

“The idea of putting a dollar up front (to clear hazardous fuels from public and private forestlands) – it’s not just the idea of getting the wood out, it’s lowering the risk to the people and property around there,” Geissler explained.

NACD continues to be heavily involved in the farm bill process through its own farm bill task force and numerous partnerships and coalitions, including the Forestry in the Farm Bill Coalition.

Chris Heck, NACD government affairs associate, can be reached by email at chris-heck@nacdnet.org.

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