Republican Farm Bill Could Threaten 58.5 Million Acres of Forest Land, Conservationists Say

GettyImages-53114155
Yuccas burst forth very large stalks of flowers as a heavy wildflower bloom, on the first day of summer in the Angeles National Forest northwest of La Canada, California. David McNew/Getty Images

A new Republican piece of legislation will threaten about 58.5 million acres, or 91,000 square miles, of protected forest land, environmental activists say.

The Farm Bill, an all-encompassing multi-year piece of legislation that directs what happens at the Department of Agriculture, has gained attention for its proposed overhaul to the food stamp program. While it is typically written with input from both sides of the aisle and passed along bipartisan lines, that's not the case this year. Critics argue that this year has been unusually partisan and that parts of the new bill come straight from Republican Representative Bruce Westerman's Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which worked to ease anti-logging regulations and reduce environmental review processes for logging and construction.

These provisions threaten to eliminate the roadless rule, which prohibits most commercial logging and activity through vast swaths of American forest land and preserves them as habitats for threatened species and areas of recreation. Advocates argue that preventing deforestation in these areas protects drinking water for millions of Americans, prevents dangerous mudslides, and can help mitigate the effects of climate change. Some critics argue that having so many trees so close increases the chance of long-burning forest fires, but the large trees found in these areas tend not to burn and catch fire as quickly, and can often mitigate fires.

In 2016, then-former Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie wrote that "strong protections of these vital natural areas are an important climate adaptation strategy as roadless areas provide critical refuges for wildlife in a warming climate and protect headwaters that provide...drinking water."

The watersheds that these areas protect ease flooding and landslides, and old growth forests found in roadless areas are able to store large amounts of carbon, helping to offset the greenhouse effect. The large trees found in roadless forests are more naturally resilient to forest fires. According to the USDA, forest fires occur much more frequently in areas with road access, because of human error and misconduct.

"For decades, the Farm Bill has provided comprehensive farm and food policy that is supported by members of both political parties," senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell wrote in a letter to Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and ranking member Debbie Stabenow. "But increasingly, crucial must-pass bills are used as opportunities to attach environmentally harmful provisions that are incapable of passing on their own."

The letter, which was signed by 27 other Democratic senators including Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Dianne Feinstein, expressed the lawmakers' "strong opposition to gutting bedrock U.S. environmental laws with provisions that threaten our air, water, lands, and wildlife," and urged for "a 2018 Farm Bill that is free of these ideological distractions. Instead of undermining the Farm Bill with anti-environmental provisions, we strongly urge you to produce viable legislation that is free of unnecessary controversies."

According to Democratic lawmakers, the bill was written in private by House Committee on Agriculture Republicans and then sent to the floor in a completely partisan vote.

"Agriculture Committee Chair Michael Conaway shut out ranking member Collin Peterson and so it was totally partisan," said Megan Birzell, national forest defense campaign manager for The Wilderness Society, who works closely with Congress. "Democrats didn't see the bill before it was released to the public and as we anticipate a vote next week, I expect it will pass along party lines."

Randy Russell of The Russell Group in Washington D.C., who worked on eight farm bills, beginning in the Reagan administration, said that partisan behavior when it comes to the Farm Bill has been unseen up until these most recent negotiations. "Having a straight partisan vote? I've never seen that before," he said.

The House is expected to vote on the Farm Bill this week, though rallying support for the bill has been an increasingly uphill battle, according to recent reports. Conaway told The Hill that Republicans are shy of the 218 votes, but House Speaker Paul Ryan, who sees the bill as an important part of his legacy, has been lobbying aggressively to round up the votes it needs to pass.

The hit to the roadless rule was quietly slipped into the bill, Birzell said, and the Agriculture Committee didn't respond to environmental groups that voiced their concerns about it. "Part of it is that if you look at political climate, there are so many regulations being attacked or rolled back, so it's difficult to focus on everything. Sometimes things slip, and so repealing roadless rule is back on agendas even though we assumed it was safe."

Other environmental advocates say that this bill aids the logging industry at the risk of the environment. "This bill prioritizes the logging industry over all other forest stakeholders, including recreation interests. The federal forest provisions in the Farm Bill also run contrary to the wildfire funding agreement reached in the Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus," wrote Louis Geltman, policy director at Outdoor Alliance, a group of nine organizations representing the interests of protected lands.

An Agriculture Committee aide representing the Republican majority told Newsweek that "the language upholds the protections for the most sensitive forest lands," but that it "also recognizes that some sensitive/protected forest lands require management as a part of maintaining them for future generations. It simply ensures that forest management activities currently allowed by law or regulation may proceed, while preventing those management activities on lands where they are prohibited."