It’s still not exactly clear why the 2018 Farm Bill is stalled in the U.S. Senate, but the Arkansas congressman who served as a conferee for the U.S. House version points out nearly 1 million acres of forest land is burning while debates continue.
Speaking with reporters in a conference call Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said the 2018 Farm Bill submitted by the House has “common-sense forest management provisions in its Forestry Title to help prevent loss of life and property from the fires.”
“They’re not giving solid reasons why,” Westerman said of Senate stalling. “The Forestry Title is just one part of it … there’s nothing extreme about the Farm Bill.”
Traditionally though, Democrats have shown opposition in the past to Westerman’s funding formula for the U.S. Forest Service budget to fight fires in the Resilient Federal Forests Act. Westerman, the only forester in Congress, co-authored the bill that calls for Forest Service protections to practice forest management and allow the Forest Service to dip into FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funding for any overage from firefighting.
Westerman said allowance of FEMA funding is “more sensible” since the government is going to end up paying for the fire protection anyway. Allowing FEMA money as backup would free the Forest Service up to do its other projects.
“The Forest Service should be allowed to practice forest management,” Westerman said. “They’re having to spend so much on firefighting they're not being allowed to do all these other things.”
In 2015, for the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service began spending more than half of its budget on firefighting. Democratic leadership, going back to former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, has pushed for increasing the budget for the Forest Service, but not address forest management.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, stated in 2015 under Vilsack that they expected by the 2025 the cost of fire suppression will take up more than two-thirds, or about $1.8 billion, of the Forest Service budget.
Westerman says that since it took decades to get into the situation where forest fires are burning hotter and faster, it will take many years to get out of it by allowing prescribed fire burns and thinning of timber on federal forest land.
Countering the argument that the Resilient Federal Forests Act was written to simply open up national forests to more logging, Westerman said “there is a glut of timber” on the market already.
“This is about forest health,” Westerman told the Times Record in early September. “If it was about corporate greed, I’d say cut nothing from the federal public land so there’d be more market for private forest owners. All I’m asking for people to do is see the science and make the decisions on science.”
Surprisingly, Westerman noted, there has been “minimal” resistance to the work requirements provision to gain SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits.
And it’s been several months since U.S. Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Fla., said he’d block amendments to the Farm Bill unless a provision was struck that would allow USDA funding for foreign market development programs to be spent in Cuba.
Westerman questioned whether U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the party’s ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, was “doing (Minority Leader Sen.) Chuck Schumer’s bidding.”
“Currently, nearly 1 million acres are burning nationwide. The 2018 Farm Bill contains bipartisan, common sense forest management provisions to help prevent loss of life and property from these fires,” Westerman said in a joint news release with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “Despite good faith efforts by the Farm Bill conferees, Senate Democrats refuse to even discuss these needed reforms. This is not the time for partisan politics — fires this year have already claimed six lives and millions of dollars in lost property. The 2018 Farm Bill presents a historic opportunity to address our nation’s wildfire crisis and stop catastrophic wildfires before they start. We urge our Senate colleagues to listen to the stories of the farmers and ranchers affected by catastrophic wildfire, and work swiftly to finalize the 2018 Farm Bill.”