Kill off anti-environmental excesses in the farm bill

Kill off anti-environmental excesses in the farm bill
© Getty

When people bemoan the decline of bipartisanship in our current politics, the usual focus is the difficulty of reaching agreement on policies that would help the nation as a whole. Both parties claim to want broad access to health insurance and lower taxes on the middle class, for instance, yet their prescriptions are almost diametrically opposed.

Two separate problems also obstruct bipartisanship. One is when both sides agree on a positive solution for a pressing problem but one or the other holds it hostage to press a separate set of demands. That repeatedly has been the problem with government shut-downs. The other is the growing willingness to break agreements shortly after making them. Recent suggestions that the White House and congressional Republicans would rescind moneys just appropriated in the omnibus appropriations bill is a case in point.

Both problems have afflicted resolution of long-running difficulties funding fire-fighting on federal lands.

ADVERTISEMENT
The fire funding problem was a textbook case of self-defeating short-term thinking. Systematic under-funding of the Forest Service’s fire-fighting function caused it to “borrow” funding from the rest of its budget, throwing chaos into the remainder of its activities.

This approach to disaster funding was unique – uniquely bad. We would not ask the Department of Homeland Security to lay off Border Patrol agents to fund FEMA’s relief efforts after a particularly devastating hurricane. But we asked other forest programs to bear the costs of unfunded fire-fighting for years.

Because fire “borrowing” disrupts work important to the timber industry – such as approval and implementation of new logging – as well as those valued by recreational forest users and conservationists, one would expect a bipartisan solution should be possible. And indeed it was. In both the House and the Senate, bipartisan groups introduced legislation to end fire borrowing and treat fire-fighting like other disaster response efforts.

Yet when this was offered as part of the recent omnibus appropriations bill, Members allied with the logging industry held it hostage, demanding unrelated anti-environmental provisions. In so doing, they ignored Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueAndrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland US puts business ahead of children’s health Western states brace for most severe wildfire outbreak since 2012 MORE’s statement that fire borrowing, not excessive environmental laws, is what is preventing the Forest Service from meeting loggers’ needs.

Ultimately, the omnibus bill included the fire funding fix but also expanded the grounds on which logging projects could be exempt from serious environmental review. It also exempted government agencies for up to 15 years from having to review their land management policies when a new species is designated as endangered. A great many animals can die in 15 years. The bill allowed the current administration to lock in logging rights on public lands for up to 20 years. And it expanded the nihilistic “take-it-or-leave-it” approach in which environmental reviews cannot consider ways to modify a project to reduce potential harms. A pretty stiff price to pay for a reform that helped loggers as much as anyone.

Less than a month after the president signed the omnibus into law, however, House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway (R-Texas) has drafted a Farm Bill that disregards the deal reached on that legislation in favor of a dramatically more radical assault on protections for our forests. It would double the size of logging projects that may be undertaken without serious environmental review; the new limit covers projects larger than 40 percent the size of Manhattan. It also would add so many new grounds for such exemptions that virtually any logging project could qualify. And with no meaningful limits on how many such projects may be proposed or approved, it would give timber companies a gigantic loophole in laws designed to balance logging, recreational and conservation uses on public lands.

Nonsensically, this proposal also would remove the requirement that logging to protect communities from wildfires be done near those communities. This creates yet another excuse for destructive logging in pristine wilderness areas that has nothing to do with fire safety. To facilitate this, it creates sweeping exceptions to rules limiting new road building in remote forests. Further spurning science, it allows logging projects to bypass the experts at the Fish and Wildlife Service if the Forest Service has a good feeling that endangered species will not be harmed.

Some senators, too, are insisting that the farm bill should shred the compromise on the omnibus bill.

All the exhortations to bipartisanship in the world will not do much good if members that work hard to develop bipartisan plans see them held hostage to unrelated special interest demands and then see the deals they reached with the hostage-takers tossed aside less than a month later.

Partisan farm bill proposals go nowhere. With Chairman Conaway’s draft already including deeply unpopular draconian nutrition assistance cuts, he ensures further acrimony with further giveaways to a timber industry that just received huge gifts in the omnibus. These provisions strongly suggest that he has no interest in actually passing legislation. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsGOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE Senate passes mammoth farm bill Moderates need to hold firm against radical right on Farm Bill MORE (R-Kan.), who sensibly likes to remind people that he needs 60 votes to pass a farm bill, would be well-advised to omit these sorts of provisions from his mark.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.