Farm bill must tackle forest management and wildfires

Farm bill must tackle forest management and wildfires

The House and Senate have now both agreed to go to conference on the farm bill and have named conferees for this process. This is significant progress towards passage of this mammoth piece of legislation that spans agriculture, nutrition, forestry and conservation.

The timing could not be more ideal, given the growing intensity of our forest challenges, such as wildfire.

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Rural Americans, especially the 21 million family forest owners, want to see this process completed and a new and improved farm bill — one that helps them address these challenges — passed this year.

 

Across our country, one in four rural Americans owns and cares for forestland. Collectively, they own and care for the largest portion of U.S. forests, more than all the federal agencies combined. 

Because of the checkboard pattern of ownerships across the U.S., family owned woodlands, not just public lands, play an integral role in providing important resources for all citizens. These forests filter the clean water that flows to towns and major city centers. They provide core habitat needed for our thousands of wildlife species, many of which are at-risk or declining. They also contribute to rural employment and economies, by providing more than 50 percent of the nation’s wood supply and supporting more than 2.4 million rural jobs.

Forest owners are renowned for putting sweat equity and resources into keeping their land healthy, but the farm bill offers a number of programs and policies that lend a helping hand, remove barriers, and provide tools for family forest owners.

This bill has become even more critical as our forest challenges — wildfire, drought, insects, as well as the rising costs of forest management — continue to grow.

Congress has made a lot of progress in previous farm bills to support family forest owners. As the farm bill conferees work to reconcile the House and Senate version of the farm bill, we hope they continue to keep their focus on the importance of programs and provisions that support rural landowners to better address the forest challenges at hand.

Ultimately, forest owners want to see a final 2018 farm bill that includes these key components:

1. Support for cross-boundary, landscape-scale efforts to tackle critical forestry issues, especially wildfire. Issues like these do not stop at property lines which means it is no longer enough to address issues on only one piece of property. We need more efforts to work collectively across public and private land to get ahead of the issue across a landscape. To do this, Congress can strengthen the U.S. Forest Service tools to work collaboratively across boundaries, through the Landscape Scale Restoration program and their Hazardous Fuels program.

2. Include measures to support a strong, diverse forest products industry. Across the country, landowners are struggling to manage their woods in the face of declining markets for low-value, small-diameter wood. This is the material that must be removed to reduce wildfire risk, improve habitat, and keep forests resilient.

Without markets for this material, management costs become outlandish, causing forest owners to often leave their land unmanaged and vulnerable. Support and investment in programs such the Community Wood Energy Program, which can bolster markets for this low value material, will reduce treatment costs and create jobs across rural America.

3. Support for landowners managing for at-risk wildlife.With an anticipated near doubling of the number of at-risk fish and wildlife that rely on family forests for their habitat in the southern U.S. alone, we need both policies and funding, that together will help family woodland owners proactively and voluntarily conserve critical habitat while avoiding burdensome regulations.

4. Strong funding for forest owners in the forestry and conservation programs. Programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program have shown they provide enormous public benefit by providing families support to care for their land. In fact, according to a 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 every day.

With a new and improved farm bill in place this year, family forest owners can do their part to keep our forests healthy and thriving, that in turn will help all Americans.

Tom Martin is the president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation.