The farm bill currently making progress toward the President's desk deals with far more than just farming.
It's fairly common knowledge the bill is also tied to the supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, but the measure also contains provisions dealing with something close to home for all Warren County residents, regardless of profession; forestry.
Amongst other forestry provisions, the legislation, reconciled by a joint House-Senate conference committee last week and already agreed to by the House and Senate, contains provisions that originated in the Forest Products Fairness Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Glenn Thompson that never made it to enactment.
If the conference committee recommendations are passed in the Senate this week and the resultant farm bill is signed by the President, the inclusion of the Forest Products Fairness Act provision will represent a long-fought-for victory for Thompson.
"A piece of legislation that I had introduced that we were able to get included in this bill so that it will be law, that's the Forest Products Fairness Act," Thompson pointed out. "Really, what it does is, it's a marketing program that has been used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) called 'bio-preferred'.
"If you go to a hardware store, let's say you go to the counter for flooring and you buy a box of bamboo flooring, which is not grown in this country. You will see that it will have a sticker on it saying that it is USDA 'bio-preferred'. Sitting next to it could be a box of hardwood cherry, from Warren County, and it's not eligible. I mean, it's the craziest thing.
"Once the President signs this farm bill, that will change. So that marketing will help expand new market opportunities for timber and forest products by allowing them now to qualify for the USDA's 'bio-preferred' program. So that creates more demand for our forest products and timber."
The legislation also aims to lessen the burden on the U.S. Forest Service from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) required studies for routine actions.
Under the NEPA regulations, the Forest Service must complete environmental analyses and generate impact statements and related documents before undertaking a wide-range of activities, including things like trail maintenance and replanting.
By providing the Forest Service with the ability to use categorical exclusions to bypass NEPA requirements for certain types of routine work, the farm bill aims to reduce time and money spent on these activities.
"Also included in the bill, from a forest perspective, and this will be really good for the Allegheny National Forest (ANF), the ANF has to use a significant amount of money in order to complete NEPA assessments for non-controversial, day-to-day activities," Thompson noted. "You know, clearing trails, replanting trees after forest fires, clearing a power line. These are kind of regular maintenance things. NEPA studies are incredibly expensive with the amount of various types of professionals, the amount of time and the amount of paperwork. So there's now a delay that that bureaucracy creates and the irony of it is, if you look at the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, they don't have to do that. They have what's called categorical exclusion. The Forest Service is the only one that somehow got left behind.
"Well, my language, my law that I wrote into the farm bill, actually is going to allow the ANF and all other national forests to do the same thing that the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior have been doing for years. That is going to save them significant money that they could use and re-invest in actively and properly managing our forests so that they are healthy, and also so that we have more robust economies in our rural communities. So I'm very proud of that one."
Due to its wide-scope, the farm bill crosses into a number of arenas and, at times, the different issues it deals with intersect. Such is the case when it comes to conservation measures in the bill, which often intersect with agriculture and forestry issues within the bill.
One area where a change in one arena equates to a change in another is the treatment of forest roads and related silvicultural activities inherent in forest management. Under the provisions of the bill, such structures and activities can no longer be considered as point sources of pollution for the purposes of the Clean Water Act. The issue was previously ambiguous, and such locations and activities have been argued to be point sources of pollution in court.
While reactions to this change vary, from those who view it as removal of a regulatory hurdle to those who see it as opening the door to potential water pollution disasters, Thompson sees the change in a positive light.
"It provides some certainty to our forest products industry because it clarifies that forest roads and what is referred to as related silvicultural activities will not be treated as a point source of pollution under the Clean Water Act," Thompson said. "Essentially, those activities that occur on the forest that help to manage the forests, keep our forests being carbon sinks, help our forests to continue to be filters for our water and our watersheds; that those activities will no longer be subject to frivolous lawsuits which have real potential and, in reality, have, shut down forests to the point where the only thing our forests are producing are wildfires and invasive species. So that's a real, positive change. That's for all our forest areas, not just national forests."
One area Thompson said he feels is particularly exciting is research into forest material usage, something expanded upon in the farm bill.
"I think the investments that we've made in research," Thompson said of accomplishments he finds particularly important. "Our Forest Service laboratories, our research investments we've made through our land grant universities, which include, of course, Penn State and, of course, PennState has a presence through cooperative extensions in every county. Those, both the university and the Forest Service side, are incredibly important. That's new innovation and science.
"They're just achieving some amazing things in finding new uses for forest products whether it's energy or the production of sugars, whether it's new technology and innovation where you can build skyscrapers with forest products, where in the past you couldn't build more than a three-story building and expect it to stand. Now, some of the reports I'm seeing, they can build them in a way that can sustain hurricane force winds. They're just using the forest fibers to reinforce concrete.
"These are all, these expanded markets, incredibly important. Obviously, number one, they're jobs in our area; but number two, they increase demand for timber and that means we're able to make sure that we're harvesting and managing our forests in a healthy way and that means regular production. That's the only way you keep a forest healthy. You have multiple generations of trees on a forest. You have to have a demand for that timber in order to make it work economically. Our investments in science and innovation, I think, are very exciting."