By Eric Hansen
On June 30, the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released “Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America.” Written entirely by the Democratic staff on the Committee, the report fulfills the Committee’s mandate to craft policy recommendations to address climate change. At 547 pages long, the report is an expansive document that covers the full range of economic sectors and climate impacts.
One of the 12 ‘pillars’ in the report focuses on agriculture and working lands conservation. The recommendations in this section draw heavily from existing legislation from Democratic members of Congress and primarily utilizes existing programs at USDA and NRCS. Overall, the recommendations support the existing, voluntary and incentive-based conservation programs at NRCS, rather than regulatory mandates on producers.
When NACD provided recommendations to the Committee, we highlighted the importance of the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program and the challenges that NRCS has had with staffing in field offices. The Committee’s report addresses both issues. It recommends increased funding for CTA (though without a specific funding level) and greater direct hiring authority for NRCS. It also recommends increased reporting by NRCS to Congress on staffing levels and shortfalls.
The report also highlights the role conservation districts play in delivering technical assistance. It calls for increased federal funding to districts to support their role in providing technical assistance on practices that address climate change. The Committee highlights the Alaska Association of Conservation Districts’ equipment rental program, which helps farmers access equipment needed to adopt new, resource conserving practices. Many districts across the country run similar programs, and the Committee recommends using federal funding to increase these programs.
In addition to support for technical assistance, NACD recommended to the Committee that Congress increase funding of the existing USDA conservation programs rather than create a new program to address climate change. The Committee took this recommendation as well and calls for funding increases to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the Watershed Programs, and the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP).
The report also recommends expanding available options for forestry practices within existing conservation programs and providing robust funding for the Healthy Forests Reserve Program due to the benefits healthy forests can contribute toward carbon sequestration. While the report does not include specific funding levels, it does recognize the value of these programs and the existing conservation delivery system.
The Committee also recommends that the USDA conservation programs increase their focus on climate change and increase set-asides within the programs. The Committee appears to have missed the mark with this set of recommendations. Although including climate adaptation and mitigation as one of the purposes of these conservation programs could help NRCS and FSA expand available options to address these issues, NACD knows from experience that the most successful adoption of all practices, including those that focus on climate mitigation/carbon sequestration, will be those that have local buy-in. Local Working Groups should be setting program priorities at the local level and Congress should not be requiring certain set asides or goals for these programs at the national level.
Also concerning, the report recommends setting a price on carbon. A carbon tax would increase costs for agricultural producers who rely on fuel to run their machinery and fertilizer to grow crops. Increasing costs limits the ability of farmers to make investments in conservation on their farms. Producers are already sequestering carbon on their own operations, and they should not be penalized by taxing the inputs needed to make this sequestration possible. While the report calls for increased federal funding for conservation, this funding is still cost-shared with investments from the producers themselves. A carbon tax undermines these conservation efforts.
Eric Hansen is NACD’s Government Affairs Manager and can be reached at eric-hansen[at]nacdnet.org.