Farm Bill Smoke on the Water

By Beacon Staff

On April 8, news hit that Gov. Steve Bullock nominated 5.1 million acres of Montana’s national forests for “expedited forest management,” including logging under a new program included in the long-bickered-over Farm Bill. The Montana Wood Products Association said happy things, in stereo with bipartisan praise from all three of Montana’s Congresscritters, while the usual Green litigants snarled and moaned.

Handsprings and cartwheels, right? Um, not yet.

The actual legislation is the so-called “National Forest Critical Area Response” program, buried in “Miscellaneous Provisions” of Farm Bill Title VIII (that’s E I G H T), Section 8204, “Insect and Disease Infestation.”

The bill language originated as a bill (S-745) introduced by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and co-sponsored by Mark Udall (also D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Max Baucus (D-China). S-745 got no hearings, but was simply logrolled whole cloth into the Farm Bill – that is, the Democratic-run Senate’s substitute for the Republican House version in July 2013, passed by “unanimous consent.” The House tried to amend things back, the Senate refused – which is why things dragged out so long.

In a nutshell, the hoopla is over a minor amendment to the watered-down Bush-era Healthy Forest Restoration Act (that hasn’t restored much) of 2003, with the big difference being a “hard” annual appropriation of $200 million instead of HFRA’s existing “such sums as are necessary” wording.

In theory, categorical exclusions for bug-kill forests might help matters – especially in terms of time wasted on National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) paperwork. On April 15, the General Accountability Office released a NEPA cost-benefit report (requested by two really green Democrats) that has lots of good stuff, worthy of a column all by itself, but for now, here’s GAO’s deal:

The GAO found that federal environmental impact statements (EIS) needed an average of 4.6 years. Environmental assessments (EA) took 13 months. Categorical Exclusions (CE or Catex) required one day to six months, depending on the agency. Forest Service? EISs, they did not have data. For EAs, 18 months. CEs? 177 days.

But these Farm Bill CEs won’t be a blank check. Work will only be allowed in cases of “substantially increased tree mortality” or “dieback” due to bug kill. Wilderness areas, Congressional wilderness study areas, and otherwise congressionally restricted lands are exempt, and work must be done consistent with forest plans. No new permanent roads can be built, just old ones “may” be maintained. Temporary roads “shall” be ripped out within three years.

Plus, litigation is almost guaranteed, especially on matters of “extraordinary circumstances” concerning effects upon “endangered species, protected cultural sites, and wetlands.” All the CE might do is get the litigants into the courtroom faster. Getting out? Who knows?

Realistically, $200 million a year on 41 million acres spreads the cash pretty thin – five bucks an acre per year. A program that loses $100 per acre could still treat 2 million acres a year – but while everyone talks about this being a 15-year deal, the fact is, each Farm Bill is a FIVE-year authorization.

Then we have the unanswered question of which states will actually get approved and funded. Importantly, two of the four Democratic backers hail from Colorado – with Mark Udall up for a vicious re-election fight in 2014. Colorado has 3 million acres of dead pine, a gutted forestry sector, and has suffered a wave of spectacular fires that destroyed many high-dollar homes and terrorized lots of voters.

Frankly, it’s a pretty darn safe bet that the esteemed gentlemen from Colorado will make sure that Colorado is first in line for its share of the $200 million. They have no reason to care much about the per-acre cost and whether other states might get shafted – they have elections to win right now.

So, what does Bullock’s announcement really mean? Well, one of my logger buddies nailed it – he said there’s a big difference between asking and getting. Until he feels trees hitting the ground and watches them loaded onto trucks to Montana mills, he’ll treat Bullock’s Farm Bill announcement like most politics – more smoke on the water.