Party leaders take reins of farm bill talks

Source: Marc Heller, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2018

A fight over forest management that’s imperiling the 2018 farm bill has been handed off to top congressional leaders, the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees said yesterday.

“I’m not in the conversation,” House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told reporters. “The leadership has ownership of the forestry title, and they’re negotiating that.”

In pushing for provisions easing restrictions on thinning projects in and around national forests, advocates for active forest management have turned the farm bill into a rematch over lost battles in the fiscal 2019 omnibus spending bill enacted last March, when they made only modest gains. But it wasn’t clear yesterday whether they would win much this time around.

At issue are regulations requiring environmental impact statements on forest management projects that the Forest Service says can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Supporters of more intensive management are also looking for ways to speed approvals and reduce litigation that can delay projects for several years.

Agriculture Committee leaders said the forestry provisions are out of their hands and that the majority of what remains in the farm bill — a five-year measure covering crop insurance, commodity programs, conservation and low-income nutrition programs — has been settled in House-Senate negotiations.

“Democratic leadership in the Senate wanted ownership of that title from the very start,” Conaway said. “So that was not going to be ours to negotiate, as it turns out.”

Even with the forestry hurdle, leaders said they believe an agreement could be struck on the farm bill before the end of this week — a timeline that stretches Congress’ ability to obtain cost estimates, print a conference report and clear it through both chambers before lawmakers finish the 2018 session in early December, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters.

“We’re making good progress on the farm bill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a weekly news conference. “Sen. [Debbie] Stabenow [D-Mich.] is working very hard with Sen. Roberts. The only things left are some forest provisions. We hope we can get a farm bill this year.”

How the forest provisions might take shape was a point of speculation among lobbyists and lawmakers’ offices. While large-scale exclusions from the National Environmental Policy Act included in the House version of the bill don’t look likely to advance, measures chipping away at litigation or expanding on environmental exclusions that were included in the 2014 farm bill might be in the mix, as could policies allowing for faster salvage logging operations in areas burned by wildfire.

“It’s a tough, tough issue, it just is, but with California burning and that happening all the time, the issue of salvage, I think, is tremendously important,” Roberts said. “We’re trying to find a way through that.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), whose H.R. 2936 promoting active management passed the House Natural Resources Committee, said he doesn’t expect negotiations to yield more than “crumbs” of his bill in the finished product.

“The Senate Democrats, basically they don’t want any new forestry provisions in the bill, but we’re pushing back on that,” Westerman said. “For the life of me, I don’t understand why they don’t want to see something better than what we’re seeing on the national forests right now.”

The fight resembles a similar scrap over the omnibus spending bill earlier this year, when Westerman and allies won a few small provisions but fell well short of his bill.

The forest management fight has been in the background of farm bill talks and gained new momentum after the recent wildfires in California.

The resulting delay in reaching a compromise bill has frustrated top Agriculture Committee members, including House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-Minn.).

Peterson, a co-sponsor of Westerman’s bill, said he’s fed up with the fight over forest policy in the farm bill. Forest issues aren’t typically a major point of contention in farm bills, falling instead to other legislation covering public lands.

“There’s never going to be another forestry title in any farm bill, if I’ve got anything to say about it. I’m tired of this,” Peterson, who is in line to become committee chairman next year, said as he walked out of the Capitol last night. “Those people overstepped their bounds this time.”