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Federal Forest Resource Coalition Weekly Report for Friday, September 24, 2021

By Bill Imbergamo, FFRC Executive Director. Shutdown Showdown: As Fiscal Year Winds Down, Congress at Loggerheads on Government Funding, Debt Limit: Fiscal Year 2021 ends this coming Thursday, and it’s not apparent that Congress can approve a stop-gap funding bill in time to prevent a government-wide shutdown. Depending on how it’s handled, a shutdown could severely impact ongoing timber sales on the National Forests.

The House passed a “Continuing Resolution” Tuesday night that would keep agencies running through Dec. 3. It cleared the House along party lines with a 220-211 vote. The CR includes $28.6 billion in additional disaster relief funding, including $890 million for the Forest Service and $100 Million for the Department of Interior (details on that below).

The House-passed CR includes a suspension of the Federal “Debt Limit” until December 2022, a provision that all but guarantees unified GOP opposition in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made it clear that the Republicans will not provide any votes for a Debt Limit increase or suspension, and the Democrats are well short of the 60-votes they need to move a CR with a Debt Limit bump.

(For reference, America didn’t have a statutory “debt limit” until 1939, when our Federal debt was roughly $40 Billion. Our current Federal debt is about $23 TRILLION, which seems to suggest that statutory debt limits don’t do a whole heck of a lot to, you know, limit the debt).

Minority Leader McConnell has introduced a competing CR that would fund the Government along the same lines through December 3rd, but without the debt limit increase. While there’s usually quiet, back-channel negotiations to try to avert shutdowns, this year, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Previous shutdowns have resulted in drastically different impacts for the timber sale program. The 2013 shutdown, during the Obama Administration, led to an immediate shutdown of all ongoing timber contracts, and contracting officers and law enforcement were told to quickly issue stop-work orders. By contrast, the 2018 shutdown saw timber sales proceed for the most part, although it did delay awards of new sales and prevented closeouts on ongoing sales. We’re in contact with the Forest Service to determine the approach they will use, but in the meantime, we urge you to remain in close contact with your Contracting Officers as the Thursday deadline approaches.

Both versions of the Continuing Resolution include bumps in funding for the Forest Service and Department of Interior, mostly for disaster recovery following a full summer of wildfires and hurricanes. Funding includes:

$710M for National Forest System, including:

  • $535M for wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters

  • $175M for high priority post-wildfire restoration for watershed habitat, critical habitat, and burned area recovery

  • $175M for hazardous fuels mitigation

  • $470M for Capital Improvement and Maintenance

The CR also includes $180 Million for Forest Service Operations, State & Private Forestry, and the Forest Service Research branch. Both bills included $100M for Wildland Fire Management ($55M for hazardous fuel management, and $45M for burned area recovery) at the Department of Interior.

Leaders in both parties are making the usual noises, wherein they say they don’t want either a shutdown or a default, but then immediately move on to explaining why if either happens, their party is not to blame. Parents of elementary school aged children will be familiar with this behavior.

Forestry Bills Continue to Crop Up, As Congress Reacts to Yet Another Catastrophic Fire Season: Senators this week introduced bills intended to promote reforestation, timber salvage, and larger-scale watershed restoration projects, as the Western fire season winds down. Whether any of them can pass is an open question.

Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee Chairman Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Ranking Member John Barrasso (R-WY) Thursday introduced the America’s Revegetation and Carbon Sequestration (ARCs) Act. The bill includes provisions intended to encourage reforestation, promote mass timber, and expedite timber salvage on the National Forests.

“This bill provides a good foundation for better management of our unhealthy, fire prone National Forest System,” FFRC Executive Director Bill Imbergamo said. “The last decade has produced historic, disastrous fire seasons that have emitted millions of tons of carbon and created a massive need for forest recovery and restoration. This bill gives the Forest Service clear direction and new tools to begin addressing the damage done in recent years.”

Imbergamo added that “the Forest Service must be given clearer direction to expedite needed management on the portions of the National Forest System that are not set aside as wilderness or roadless areas. We hope this bill is a first step on a journey to a healthier National Forest that meets the needs of the American people.”

Also, this week, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) reintroduced Sen. Feinstein’s wildfire mitigation bill from last Congress. Unfortunately, that bill largely focuses on promotion of non-commercial fuels reduction in the immediate vicinity of developed property. While it includes a provision allowing creation of fuel and fire breaks across the National Forests, it is so larded up with restrictions and limitations on their use as to be largely useless.

With narrow margins in both Houses, and leading members of the environmental community still opposed to meaningful reforms, it’s not clear that the disastrous fire season will result in anything more than supplemental funding. The National Forests accounted for more than half the total acres burned this year, in spite of representing less than a quarter of the total U.S. land area.

Wilkes Nomination for USDA Forestry Post Advances: The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee approved the nomination of Homer Wilkes to be the next Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Thursday. Wilkes's nomination now heads to the full Senate, where it could be approved as early as next week.

“The Natural Resources and Environment mission area is on the forefront of tackling the climate crisis.” said Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). “Dr. Wilkes is a dedicated public servant and strong bipartisan choice to lead USDA’s efforts to restore and protect the health of our public forests and grasslands.”

“Dr. Wilkes has over 40 years of public service, immense expertise and a track record of successfully building partnerships with a variety of stakeholders. If confirmed, I believe Dr. Wilkes will bring the same qualities and characteristics demonstrated during his long tenure at NRCS to his role as undersecretary, which is exactly what is needed in that role. That is the type of engagement which is crucial to keeping our forests healthy and working,” said Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR).

If confirmed, Wilkes would be the highest-ranking political appointee directly overseeing the Forest Service. The “NRE” Under Secretary used to include both the Forest Service and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which assists farmers in meeting soil and water conservation goals. During the Trump Administration, the NRCS was moved out of the NRE office, so Wilkes will have responsibility solely for the Forest Service.

FTPC In-Person Meeting in Salt Lake: Register Now: Just a reminder to register for the Fall FTPC Meeting and to make your hotel reservations soon! The Fall 2021 FTPC meeting Regional Breakouts will be held virtually on October 13th and 14th and the Full meeting will be held in-person in Salt Lake City, UT (with the Forest Service joining virtually) on October 26th – 27th.

The meeting will be held at Little America in Salt Lake City. To make hotel reservations, please call 1-800-437-5288 and reference the FTPC meeting or use this link. You can register ($100 per person) at this link. Note, please make sure you pay at the same time as when you register.

The Week Ahead: The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry will hold a hearing on the 2021 Fire Season on Wednesday, September 29th at 10 AM. You can watch a livestream at this link.

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