Farm bill conferees to hammer out conservation, forest policy

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The House-Senate conference committee crafting a 2018 farm bill will meet for the first time this week, as lawmakers try to sort out competing approaches to conservation, low-income nutrition and other programs.

Although most of the heavy work falls on committee staff and the top four leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees, the meeting of conferees could shed light on which direction a final bill seems likely to go.

And, as Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has told reporters in recent weeks, the meeting will allow plenty of time for speeches. The conference committee has 56 members, including 47 from the House.

Negotiators have made progress toward resolving differences, according to Roberts. But a committee spokeswoman said a draft conference report likely won’t be ready to distribute at the meeting, a goal Roberts told reporters last week he would like to reach.

Less than a month remains before the 2014 farm bill expires on Sept. 30. While Roberts has sidestepped questions about extending the current farm bill, lobbyists following the legislation say at least a short-term extension seems likely.

The big issue separating the House and Senate is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The House-passed version of H.R. 2 would tighten employment requirements to qualify for the program, which Democrats universally oppose.

The Senate version, agreed to by Democrats, would make more modest changes that Roberts has said accomplish similar goals of program integrity.

On the conference committee, the question will be how far House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) can bend on the issue without losing many Republican votes in the full House.

Conservation

Fights over conservation and forest management continue to play out as well.

Advocates for the Conservation Stewardship Program — the biggest conservation program in terms of acreage — are pushing hard against a House proposal to eliminate it. The House bill would use much of the savings to expand the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Those programs take different approaches to encouraging conservation practices on farms. The CSP requires participants to sign up their farms, for instance — a mandate that has advantages and disadvantages, farm advocates say.

Proponents, led by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, say the CSP fills in gaps in other programs to maintain farmland and protect waterways, and that a revamp a few years ago helped make it more user-friendly.

But participation, at around 80 percent, has fallen short of congressional goals, even with the changes in place.

The program has become harder to rationalize, said Jonathon Lehman, a lobbyist and former Democratic Senate Agriculture Committee staff member. The whole-farm requirement may push away farmers who prefer to target specific areas on their property, he said. Sixty-one percent of participants re-enroll, he said.

“If you ask producers, they say some areas need work and others don’t,” Lehman said.

The Senate bill would preserve CSP, tweaking it to encourage crop rotation and the use of cover crops, which are planted to prevent erosion and boost the soil when the main crop isn’t in the ground. That’s won praise from the Environmental Working Group, which also supports making conservation programs mandatory.

Forests

The bills take different approaches on forest policy. The House calls for bigger categorical exclusions, of up to 6,000 acres, from the National Environmental Policy Act for forest-thinning projects to reduce wildfire risks, for instance.

Democrats have opposed softening NEPA, and forest policy groups say it isn’t clear whether Congress has the appetite to fight over that issue with the farm bill expiring soon.

Schedule: The meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 5, at 9:30 a.m. in 325 Russell.

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