By Coleman Garrison
Last week, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill – that President Donald Trump signed into law – that avoided a government shutdown and funds the federal government through the end of the 2018 fiscal year.
NACD releases appropriations requests around February of each year, and our organization is generally pleased with the levels that Congress provided in this omnibus. While NACD’s requests focus on a handful of programs important to conservation districts across the country, there are other provisions included in the appropriations bill, known as legislative riders, that affect policies which we also focus on.
Advocating for the Conservation Operations (CO) account and the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program is a priority for NACD. Despite President Trump’s request to reduce funding for CO by approximately $200 million, Congress invested in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to ensure it has funding to continue supporting America’s farmers and ranchers. Congress appropriated $874 million to the CO account and $774 million within that will go to the CTA program. This is a $10 million increase over the prior year’s levels, and NACD appreciates Congress’ commitment to the locally-led, voluntary conservation delivery system.
Congress generally reduces farm bill mandatory programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) through the appropriations process. However, for the first time in well over a decade, Congress agreed to leave those programs alone. NACD knows that every dollar reduced from farm bill conservation programs means less conservation practices can be implemented on the ground. NACD applauds Congress’ decision to leave these programs untouched, and we are confident we can continue working together as efforts begin on the FY 2019 appropriations bills.
NACD supports other programs in the omnibus including the EPA’s 319 grant program, which received level funding from the prior fiscal year despite a request by the administration to eliminate the program. Congress also appropriated over $150 million for the Watershed Operations and Dam Rehabilitation programs at NRCS, which is the first time the Watershed Operations program has received funding in back-to-back appropriations bills.
The U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) State & Private Forestry program received an increase to $335 million, with $28 million dedicated to urban forestry efforts. The bill also provided a fix to the way USFS funds wildfire suppression activities. Congress has frozen the 10-year average at 2015 and in doing so has ensured that the USFS will no longer be required to “borrow” funding from its internal programs to pay for the ever-increasing wildfire suppression costs in the future. This fix allows USFS the opportunity to use funding allocated to the other programs such as the State & Private Forestry program for their intended activities, including work on wildfire prevention activities.
In addition to individual programs receiving strong support, Congress also included legislative riders which directly affect the work conservation districts do. NACD was pleased to see language to eliminate the System for Award Management (SAM) and Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) requirements. Participants in NRCS programs have had to comply with these burdensome reporting restrictions for the last several years. Removing this requirement has been a top priority of NACD since it first went into effect, and removing this burdensome task on landowners and operators is a tremendous victory for the future of conservation delivery.
NACD was pleased with the federal support conservation programs received in the omnibus bill. While there is still work to be done, these funding levels provide conservation districts with increased resources to deliver the best technical assistance possible.