The fate of the farm bill has come down to forestry-policy changes that the Trump administration says it wants in order to discourage fires like the ones that have recently devastated California.
In a pre-Thanksgiving news conference, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who manages the U.S. Forest Service, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who manages other agencies with forest lands, said the conference report on the House- and Senate-passed bills should include forestry provisions that are in the House bill that passed with only Republican votes. Those provisions would give the agencies that manage the nation’s forests authority to engage in “good neighbor” partnerships with localities and tribes, clear the forest floors of dead trees and dense brush, engage in more prescribed burns of forests to discourage fires on a larger scale, and allow for the expedited approval of salvage-logging projects to remove charred and dead logs after a fire.
Perdue said during the call that the administration was not asking for authority for “clear-cutting” of forests, a practice that grossly offends environmentalists.
But Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont said in a quickly issued news release, “It is outrageous that House Republicans and the Trump administration are continuing to hold up the farm-bill negotiations over harmful and extreme forestry provisions. Secretaries Perdue and Zinke shockingly are trying to co-opt the terrible tragedies in California to push for the Trump administration’s crass, cynical, and unaccountable logging of the public’s national forests.”
On Monday, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said that the forestry demands could “bring down” the farm bill. On Tuesday, she added that the farm bill could not pass the Senate with those provisions.
Stabenow also pointed out that the Forest Service got more authorities for fire suppression in an omnibus appropriations bill earlier this year, but hasn’t implemented them yet.
What’s so odd about this situation is the Trump administration’s decision to bring up this issue so late in the farm-bill decision-making process.
Until the press conference with Zinke, Perdue said repeatedly that he would defer to Congress on the farm bill. Even though he and President Trump said they favored stiffer work requirements for beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Perdue said it was up to Congress to decide on that issue, which has been regarded as the most contentious in the bill. (The SNAP portion has been resolved to her satisfaction, Stabenow said Monday.)
The forestry title of the farm bill is traditionally a minor part of that legislation, focused mostly on how the Agriculture Department helps private foresters, while other legislation governs major forestry management. In this year’s farm-bill discussions, the forestry title hadn’t been mentioned among the major issues until last week.
White House involvement in the decision to make this such a big public issue became evident when the White House, rather than Agriculture or Interior, released a transcript of the Perdue-Zinke call to reporters. The White House also released an op-ed by Zinke on CNN.com calling for Congress to include the House farm bill's forestry provisions in the conference report so that the government can engage in “active management” of the forests.
It is highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary to tell Congress what it should include in a bill covering programs managed by another department.
Why the Trump administration decided to get so publicly involved in this issue remains something of a mystery.
When Trump visited Paradise, California, after the fire, he had a strongly emotional reaction, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”
On Monday, when Perdue and Zinke followed Trump to Paradise, The Sacramento Bee reported that Perdue said Paradise should be rebuilt using timber from the nearby Plumas National Forest. Perdue added, “I don’t know what kind of legal hurdles we’re going to face.”
Peter Nelson, federal-lands director at the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife, gave an indication of those hurdles when he told the Bee, “The Dems are now able to bring some common sense and oversight to the administration’s agenda."
Nelson said many environmentalists agree with the concept of reducing fuel loads in overgrown forests, but that Trump’s criticisms of environmentalists aren't helping forge agreement.
“It’s a missed opportunity,” Nelson told the Bee. “There’s lots of people wanting to work with the administration on this, but now we’re feeling alienated because of all the finger pointing.”
The forestry issue has now been bumped up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Schumer told reporters Tuesday that forestry is the only major farm-bill issue left and that Democrats “hope we can get a farm bill this year.”