Idaho godsend: Farm bill boosts forest restoration

Both timber and environmental interests express support for the new legislation.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comFebruary 5, 2014 

  • Farm Bill goes to Obama, who is expected to sign it Friday

    WASHINGTON — The sweeping bill that Congress sent to President Barack Obama on Tuesday has something for almost everyone, from the nation’s 47 million food stamp recipients to Southern peanut growers, from Midwest corn farmers to the maple syrup industry in the Northeast.

    After years of setbacks, the Senate on Tuesday sent the nearly $100 billion-a-year measure to President Barack Obama, who has said he will sign it.

    The Senate passed the bill 68-32 after House passage last week. The bill provides a financial cushion for farmers who face unpredictable weather and market conditions. It also provides subsidies for rural communities and environmentally sensitive land. But the bulk of its cost is for the food stamp program, which aids 1 in 7 Americans. The bill would cut food stamps by $800 million a year, or around 1 percent.

    House Republicans had hoped to reduce the bill’s costs even further, pointing to a booming agriculture sector in recent years and arguing that the now $80 billion-a-year food stamp program has spiraled out of control. The House passed a bill in September that would have made a 5 percent cut to food stamps.

    Those partisan disagreements stalled the bill for more than two years, but conservatives were eventually outnumbered as the Democratic Senate, the White House and a still-powerful bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers pushed to get the bill done.

    The White House has been mostly quiet as Congress worked out its differences on the bill. But in a statement after the vote, Obama said the farm bill isn’t perfect, “but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation.”

    Obama praised the bill for getting rid of controversial subsidies known as direct payments, which are paid to farmers whether they farm or not. Most of that $4.5 billion annual cost was redirected into new, more politically defensible subsidies that would kick in when a farmer has losses.

    To gather votes for the bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and her House counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., included a major boost for crop insurance popular in the Midwest, higher subsidies for Southern rice and peanut farmers, and land payments for Western states. The bill also sets policy for hundreds of smaller programs, subsidies, loans and grants — from research on wool to loans for honey producers. The bill would provide assistance for rural Internet services and boost organic agriculture.

    Stabenow said the bill is also intended to help consumers, boosting farmers markets and encouraging local food production.

    The Associated Press

Provisions that will allow the Forest Service to expand logging, thinning and other work supported by collaborative groups in Idaho were included in Tuesday’s sweeping measure.

The bill’s forestry segments brought praise from landowners, loggers and The Wilderness Society, a group seeking additional forest preservation. The projects offer the promise of jobs and healthier forests that are less susceptible to catastrophic fires.

The most ambitious provision in the bill requires Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to grant a governor’s request to establish one or more landscape-scale “treatment areas” of up to 3,000 acres for forests threatened by insects or invasive species. Those areas would require collaborative efforts to be in place, old-growth timber to be protected and wilderness study areas to be avoided.

Projects that get such designation could be in line for federal money and stewardship contracts. Plus, the Forest Service could approve the projects with streamlined “categorical exclusions” under the National Environmental Policy Act, making the environmental review easier and the projects harder to challenge in court.

Idaho has such projects in several national forests, including the Payette, Boise, Clearwater-Nez Perce and Panhandle. Governors would have just 60 days after enactment of the bill to seek the designation.

“The Wilderness Society is committed to seeing these provisions effectively implemented on the ground and being part of the solution in advancing comprehensive forest restoration projects,” said its president, Jamie Williams.

The Associated Logging Contractors of Idaho and the National Alliance of Forest Owners praised the Idaho congressional delegation for its efforts on behalf of a provision to keep forest roads and forest management considered “nonpoint” sources of water pollution regulated by state rules instead of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This follows an appeals court ruling and keeps the EPA from requiring permits that can be challenged in court, adding delays and costs.

Preserving the use of self-enforced state rules called “best management practices” will protect 18,000 timber jobs in Idaho, said state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, executive director of the logging contractors.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador all voted in favor of the bill, which is now headed to President Barack Obama’s desk. Labrador and the two senators voted against earlier versions of the bill.

The farm bill also permanently authorizes the stewardship-contracting program that allows the Forest Service to use revenue from timber harvests for other restoration work; and a “good neighbor policy” that allows state foresters to oversee timber projects on national forests after the Forest Service completes its environmental reviews.

The bill provides a one-year extension of the program that provides revenue to local governments with nontaxable public lands in their jurisdictions — payment in lieu of taxes.

“We applaud Congress for inclusion of these pro-forestry provisions in the bill,” said Boise’s Dave Tenny, executive director of the National Alliance of Forest Owners.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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