Congress, secure the future of our forests with the next farm bill

Congress, secure the future of our forests with the next farm bill
© Getty Images

Fall is upon us, and as the leaves begin to fall from the trees, most people would consider this the “end of the season.” Time to finish up loose ends, put the tools back in the shed and wait for spring. 

But not for family forest owners. 

Owning forestland is like any other small business or farm. It’s not seasonal. There is year-round maintenance — clearing roads, thinning overgrown stands, cleaning up debris — as well as annual expenses and challenges that must be dealt with.

ADVERTISEMENT

While many might think family forest owner only applies to a small fraction of the country, in reality, one in four rural Americans is a family forest owner. Collectively they own the largest portion of forests across the United States. 

 

What’s more, the efforts of these individuals plays an integral role in our environment and in sustaining America’s rural economies. Their forests provide more than 50 percent of the nation’s wood supply. They also supply drinking water for millions of Americans, and provide habitat for our wildlife, including at-risk species.

But our forests are facing growing challenges — wildfire, drought and insects, as well as the growing costs of forest management and the outward spread of development. While forest owners do, and will, continue to put in their own sweat, equity and resources to keep their land healthy, policies that remove barriers for landowners, or incentivize sustainable management, can dramatically help these landowners, and ultimately the resources they provide.

That is why, more than 80 family forest owners and forest advocates were in Washington D.C. this week, attending meetings with their members of Congress. These individuals will share their stories and advocate for programs, particularly in the 2018 farm bill, that provide them the support they need to overcome barriers and conduct conservation practices that have benefits that go far beyond their properties — to all Americans.

Specifically, forest owners are asking Congress to support these areas: 

  • Maintain funding and support for woodland owners in forestry and conservation programs: While budgets are tight, programs such as the Environmental Qualities Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Programs and more have shown they provide enormous public benefits and support for families need a helping hand to manage their land. In fact, according to a new report from the American Forest Foundation, in the past three years alone, farm bill programs have helped family forest owners conduct conservation work across more than 10 million acres. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 9,000 acres improved a day.
  • Streamline program implementation for woodland owners: In particular, streamlining forest management planning requirements in the programs will help reduce the paperwork burden on landowners and get more resources on the ground.
  • Support cross-boundary, landscape scale efforts to tackle forestry issues, especially wildfire: The early successes of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and other public-private partnerships showcases the opportunity to increase impact by working collaboratively across a landscape on a critical issue. Because of the checkerboard ownership patterns and the scale of our forest challenges, more landscape scale efforts are essential. To do this, Congress can strengthen the U.S. Forest Service tools to work at a landscape scale, through the Landscape Scale Restoration program and their hazardous fuels program.
  • Provide support and regulatory assurance for landowners managing for at-risk wildlife. One of the top reasons family forest owners own forestland is for wildlife. In fact, in the northeast and south, where there are high concentrations of forest-dependent species, 85 percent of landowners say wildlife is a top priority. Landowners want to do the right thing but worry about added regulations if they increase species populations on their land. Providing safe harbor protections and other policies that encourage proactive, preventive action by family landowners, can expand participation. One such program is the Healthy Forests Reserve Program—which provides these tools that can help.
  • Support a strong, diverse forest products industry to help grow markets for our timber. Government funding will not fully solve the issues facing family woodland owners. Strong markets for wood help landowners afford to manage. Congress can pass the Timber Innovation Act and improve and fund an expanded Community Wood Energy Program — both will help jumpstart markets for low value wood — which has seen market declines recently.

Congress has made a lot of progress in previous farm bills to help family forest owners. Family forest owners are excited to work with Congress to expand on this work, so the clean water and air, wildlife habitat, wood products and recreation these owners provide, can continue.

Tom Martin is the president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, which works with families, partners and elected officials to promote forest stewardship and protect our nation’s forest heritage.