By Ryan Richards, Center for American Progress
America’s farmers and ranchers have a proud tradition of conservation stewardship, working their lands with the goal of passing on their way of life to their children. Over the years, the Farm Bill has provided a strong foundation for farmers, ranchers, and private landowners to use innovative approaches and sustainable practices that benefit the land, water, and wildlife for current and future generations.
On April 18, the House Agriculture Committee passed its proposal for the 2018 Farm Bill—the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, or H.R. 2—which threatens to weaken that stewardship legacy and roll back farmers and ranchers’ ability to conserve the nation’s natural heritage.
The House appears to be using the Farm Bill as a backdoor to undermine bedrock conservation laws and spike effective conservation programs. It includes a number of troubling proposals that, if adopted, would sow uncertainty for farmers and landowners committed to protecting healthy soils and wildlife habitat; would harm national forests; and would favor industry at the expense of clean air and water.
This column discusses three ways the House bill would undermine America’s proud conservation legacy.
1. Gut America’s largest conservation funding source
Farmers and private landowners have worked with Farm Bill-supported programs for decades to protect vulnerable soils and wildlife habitat; invest in environmentally friendly growing practices; and place easements on open space to protect them from development. In fact, the Farm Bill is the largest single source of conservation funding in the United States and a major driver of private lands conservation.
The proposed House version of the Farm Bill, however, would make significant and shortsighted cuts to these programs, eliminating $1 billion over the next 10 years. Programs that support conservation on working lands—the pastures, croplands, and forests that are used to produce food and fiber—would be especially hard-hit, with large chunks of funding moving to programs that take land out of production temporarily while it recovers, instead of investing in more sustainable production.
The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), America’s largest working lands conservation program, would be eliminated entirely. A portion of its funds would be shifted to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which is described as a menu of small conservation projects from which local farmers can choose specific options to improve their land. But these programs differ greatly in their potential impact. EQIP focuses on small-scale, less comprehensive land improvement options; CSP, on the other hand, creates incentives for landowners to make more impactful investments across their farms and ranches—making a much bigger positive difference for wildlife, soil, and water resources.
2. Sell out national forests
Buried in the Farm Bill is a provision that would allow logging companies to clear large swaths of national forests without having to engage in an assessment of the project’s potential negative impacts to the area’s watershed or wildlife. Under the guise of forest restoration, the bill’s 6,000-acre “categorical exclusions” would shirk important environmental reviews and make it easier for industry to clear-cut forests.
The proposal would supersede a carefully negotiated compromise in the recent omnibus spending bill, which allows wider use of logging on parcels of up to 3,000 acres without a U.S. Forest Service environmental review as part of a package to resolve the issue of unsustainable funding demands to fight wildfires. A broad coalition of conservation, forest, and recreation groups applauded Congress’ overall effort to address wildfire funding in the spending bill and accepted the exemptions as a trade-off. Although the creation of the 3,000-acre exemption for some logging was part of the the biggest change to forest law in decades, the House Farm Bill includes language to double their size—allowing 6,000 acre projects to be exempted from the environmental review process.
The House Farm Bill would also exempt the Forest Service from currently required consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if proposed forest projects would adversely affect endangered species—instead shifting that responsibility to the secretary of agriculture. This weakens current protections by reducing the importance of science in determining the fate of threatened wildlife.
Importantly, the bill also threatens roadless areas—national forest land that has been set aside to protect it from the impacts of development—by including a provision to allow logging in these areas. This seemingly innocuous change would open up millions of acres of pristine forests—places where Americans come to hunt, fish, and find solitude—to logging projects.
Taken together, the House Farm Bill would pose a unique threat to the health of national forests that provide clean water for 180 million people; hold billions of dollars in timber and other natural resources; and anchor the $887 billion outdoor recreation economy for many communities.
3. Undercut bedrock environmental laws
The proposed legislation includes a number of provisions that would weaken key environmental laws and place industry interests ahead of public health, clean air, and clean water.
For example, the bill includes a provision that would exempt farmers from needing permits required under the Clean Water Act to apply pesticides on and around water sources—even those used for drinking water by communities downstream. The Clean Water Act is one of the nation’s most important tools to protect public health and has resulted in major pollution reduction since its passage in 1972. In addition to weakening water protection, the House Farm Bill would also prohibit concerned towns, cities, and counties from regulating the use of pesticides.
Human health is not the sole concern that is marginalized by the bill. Additional provisions would exempt the Environmental Protection Agency from needing to consult with wildlife agencies before approving pesticides—a process that is currently required under the Endangered Species Act. This 1973 law is critically important to the conservation of the nation’s threatened wildlife and has helped prevent the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection. The House bill’s proposed change would leave threatened species, especially pollinators, vulnerable and limit opportunities for agencies to ensure policies are enacted with the best available information.
The House’s opening gambit on the Farm Bill provides ample reason for concern—riddled with shortsighted cuts to successful conservation programs; handouts to industry; and efforts to undermine standards that protect U.S. national forests, health, and wildlife. The bill calls into question the value Congress places on the country’s natural resources and the role farmers, ranchers, and private landowners can play in conservation efforts.
As the Senate begins to draft its own Farm Bill proposal, policymakers should reject the House’s approach and take a more forward-looking approach that continues to empower farmers and ranchers to be good stewards of America’s working lands.