Opportunities To Fix Forests In The Farm Bill

Opportunities To Fix Forests In The Farm Bill

"Fixing our forests will ultimately require cutting through the environmental red tape that prevents many forest-restoration projects from getting off the ground or stalls them until they go up in flames."

Summer is an essential time for Montana’s agricultural producers, but this summer is also an important time for agriculture policymakers. The current federal farm bill expires in September, pushing federal legislators to craft a new multi-year package focused on agricultural and food issues. Since the first farm bill in 1933, the package has been reevaluated roughly once every five years and has been expanded to cover 12 different sectors, spanning from commodities to nutrition to forestry. While farm bills come with a major price tag–the 2018 farm bill is estimated to cost $867 billion–bill negotiations also come with the opportunity to shape agricultural policy. 

One major area of opportunity with the ongoing farm bill negotiations is to include forest management policy. As the wildfire crisis continues to grow, it is widely acknowledged that actively restoring our forests through tools like mechanical thinning, timber harvest and prescribed burns will reduce wildfire risk, protect watersheds, and conserve wildlife habitat. The problem is that obstacles including red tape, litigation, and capacity challenges make it difficult for forest managers to actually conduct the work needed on the ground to protect forest ecosystems. The 2023 farm bill provides the opportunity to remove the obstacles to fixing America’s forests. 

Here are some recommendations on how Congress could make meaningful improvements to forest management through the farm bill:

Improve Good Neighbor Authority

Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) is a farm bill authority that has helped the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management partner with states, tribes and counties to restore federal forests as part of a broader, landscape-level approach and should be more widely used. Current restrictions under the 2018 farm bill only allow states to retain a share of the revenues, and dollars can only be spent on federal lands instead of across the whole project. These limitations prevent GNA from being more widely used to restore forest ecosystems. Congress should use the 2023 farm bill to improve GNA by treating counties and tribal partners as equal partners in forest restoration projects by allowing them to retain revenues and use funding across land jurisdictions within the project boundary. 

Fix Cottonwood

Litigious special interest groups have weaponized the Endangered Species Act to prevent forest restoration projects. Under the Cottonwood decision, if a new species is listed, new critical habitat is designated, or new information becomes available about an already listed species, then the U.S. Forest Service must restart an overly extensive reconsultation process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how the new information will impact both the overarching forest plan and specific forest restoration projects. This duplicative step of reconsulting at the forest plan level in addition to the project level adds significant delays and costs for projects needed to promote forest ecosystem health and conserve wildlife habitat without actually helping wildlife. The Obama administration warned that Cottonwood could “cripple” the Forest Service’s ability to restore forests and distract the Fish and Wildlife Service from recovering species. Congress heeded this warning by enacting legislation that, for five years, shielded the Forest Service from similar litigation. Unfortunately, that temporary fix expired last month.

The Forest Service estimates that 87 forest plans across the West could now be challenged, and the restoration work being proposed or implemented in those forests could grind to a halt. Completing unnecessary and duplicative analysis for all these plans would take “somewhere between 5 and 10 years and tens of millions of dollars,” aBiden administration official estimated. That’s time and money the Forest Service does not have when a catastrophic fire could start at any moment. Congress should permanently fix the Cottonwood decision to reduce litigation barriers to forest restoration work in western states. 

Extend Partnership Contracts and Cooperative Agreements

Outside partners are essential to expanding capacity and scaling up forest restoration work. Current stewardship contracting authority allows the Forest Service to enter into 10-year stewardship contracts with outside entities and, in some high-risk fire areas, contracts can even be extended for up to 20 years. However, 10 years often is not long enough to make it worth private partners’ investments in forest restoration projects. Congress should amend stewardship contract authority to grant the Forest Service authority to enter into longer-term contracts and cooperative agreements for forest restoration work with the flexibility to easily extend contracts. 

Expand Use of Prescribed Burns

Prescribed burns are an important tool in forest restoration projects. Smoke from prescribed burns, however, counts against state Clean Air Act compliance, despite both the Environmental Protection Agency and states recognizing prescribed burns are an important tool that reduces dangerous air pollution overall from wildfires. Congress should promote the use of prescribed burns as a forest management tool by excluding prescribed burn smoke from state emission calculations, in effect crediting them for avoiding worse air pollution from a later wildfire. 

Direct Implementation of Existing Tools

In addition to creating new tools, federal land management agencies will need to more widely apply existing authorities to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration activities. Congress has given federal agencies multiple authorities to streamline these reviews, but federal agencies are not widely using these tools available to them. Congress should direct the U.S. Forest Service to use existing tools, such as applying the emergency situation authority in all of the high-risk fire sheds, to implement more forest restoration projects on the ground.

As Congress spends the summer drafting the forest provisions in the 2023 farm bill, policymakers should remember that confronting the wildfire crisis will take more than just funding. Fixing our forests will ultimately require cutting through the environmental red tape that prevents many forest-restoration projects from getting off the ground or stalls them until they go up in flames.

Hannah Downey is the policy director at PERC (the Property and Environment Research Center) in Bozeman.

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