The federal budget and the Farm Bill support programs that provide important services for and investment in the Northern Forest. This year Congress is addressing the Farm Bill, which typically renews every five years, and recently approved a new federal budget and Omnibus spending bill. Through our public policy program and leadership of a national network of rural interests, the Center has advocated for elements of both bills to serve the region.
The federal Omnibus spending bill passed in March contained a lot of good news for programs that are important to the Northern Forest:
- $15 million for the Northern Border Regional Commission (up from $10 million), including $3 million for initiatives that seek to address the decline in forest-based economies throughout the region;
- $3 million for the Economic Development Administration to collaborate with the Northern Border Regional Commission to support the development of markets for wood products;
- $600 million for rural broadband;
- Funding for the Community Forest Program doubled to $4 million. This program has supported the creation of Community Forests in Easton/Sugar Hill/Franconia/Landaff, NH; Barre, VT; and Milan, NH.
- Sustained funding for many USDA Rural Development programs, which had been targeted for elimination.
- A “fire fix,” beginning in federal fiscal year 2020, that is intended to ensure stable and responsible funding for federal firefighting activities without eroding budgets that support other parts of the Forest Service mission (such as forest stewardship and state and private forestry.
- An increase in Forest Legacy program funding by $4.65 million, which will help protect productive forestland from development or other non-forest uses.
The new is mixed to murky when it comes to the Farm Bill, another major piece of the legislation that the Center tracks closely. The Farm Bill sets policy and funding levels for many USDA programs, including the Forest Service, Rural Development and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The current Farm Bill expires this year.
To demonstrate the value of the Farm Bill, the Center has gone to Washington, D.C., to share how programs funded by the Farm Bill have benefitted the Northern Forest. In the fall we, and partners in the Rural Development Innovation Group, presented a briefing for staff of the Senate Agriculture Committee on USDA Rural Development business programs. We have provided perspective to inform “marker bills” intended for incorporation into the Farm Bill, including the one for the Community Wood Energy Program recently introduced by Senator Shaheen (D-NH) and Senator Collins (R-ME).
The House Agriculture Committee has passed a Farm Bill and the full House of Representatives is debating it this week. However, the process has been highly partisan, and the bill’s prospects are unclear. On the Senate side, there is some question as to whether the calendar will even allow time for them to consider the bill before the 2018 midterm elections. In that instance a continuation of the current bill is most likely.
The Center will continue to advocate for a strong Farm Bill to serve the Northern Forest.