By Bill Imbergamo, FFRC Executive Director. House Approves Great American Outdoors Act, Heads to President for Signature: The House voted to approve the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) Wednesday evening by a vote of 310 to 107, without any amendments. The bill now heads to the President who is expected to sign it. It makes the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) both mandatory and permanent, providing about $900 million annually primarily for land acquisition.
The bill gained traction in February when Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) prevailed upon the President to support it. FFRC worked with those two Senate offices to significantly increase the funding available to the Forest Service for roads and facilities maintenance. The bill cleared the Senate in June, with only 25 Senators voting no.
In addition to the $900 million for LWCF, the bill provides $1.9 billion annually for maintenance work on public lands. The share of the maintenance funding for the Forest Service should be about $100 million.
“We worked quickly to win modifications that ensure that some real funding will be available for roads maintenance work,” said FFRC Executive Director Bill Imbergamo. “As you know, the Forest Service increasingly offers low value thinning sales, and available funds for roads have been declining for decades. With a lower value sale program, the amount of money available for the Roads & Trails Trust fund has diminished over the years, and the appropriated funds for Forest Service roads have stagnated below FY 2013 levels for years now. With the passage of GAOA, I believe and hope that we will see timber sales put together that do not have cripplingly expensive roads packages. We have heard time and again that the Forest Service has dropped units from sales because of a lack of roads funding, and we’ve seen timber sales converted to uneconomic helicopter or skyline yarding systems because the Forest Service doesn’t have the funds to repair or replace one culvert. With the passage of GAOA, this should change.”
Congressional Negotiators, White House Continue to Work towards “COVID-IV” Relief Package: Unemployment, Testing are Focus: Congressional Republicans continue to negotiate, mostly amongst themselves, over a “next” COVID relief package. The bill continues to focus on how to extend “bonus” unemployment benefits, the Paycheck Protection Program, and to continue to support both Coronavirus testing efforts and state and local level response to the pandemic. Unfortunately, the Congress continues to focus on this type of broad spending rather than making some strategic investments to support job creation in rural areas.
There continues to be significant distance between the White House, where President Trump requested reduced spending for testing and support of state and local government, while also asking for a payroll tax cut. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) continues to press for broad liability protections for employers and others. Meanwhile the GOP and Congressional Democrats continue to be oceans apart on spending levels. The House Democrats are still seeking north of $3 Trillion, while the GOP continues to press for a package totaling roughly $1 Trillion. If the two chambers settle somewhere closer to the lower number, the Federal government will have hemorrhaged something in the neighborhood of $6 trillion since this crisis began.
FFRC has recently endorsed the Logger’s Relief Act, which would provide up to $2.5 billion to allow loggers to seek federal loans for lost revenue to help cover costs other than payroll. This effort is being led by the American Loggers Council, and was introduced this week by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN). Hopefully, this funding can be included in the next COVID bill. Loggers could be eligible for grants and loans if they saw revenue declines of at least 10% due to the pandemic.
We continue to emphasize to our appropriations friends that they should invest in Forest Service roads and timber sales to help create jobs in rural areas hit hard by the pandemic.
Trump Administration Cuts Off H2B Visas: On June 24th, the Trump Administration cut off H2B visas for the remainder of 2020, meaning new seasonal workers from Mexico and South America can't join forestry crews. "These crews are so important, not just for loggers but for young forest establishment, wildfire prevention and environmental health," said Rex Storm, executive vice president of Associated Oregon Loggers Inc., a trade association. Last year, about 11,000 forestry workers came in on H2B visas. Federal law already requires employers to advertise to U.S. workers before hiring through the H-2B pipeline, and contractors say few U.S. workers respond to job listings. Tim O'Hara, director of government affairs at the Forest Resources Association, said only 2% of advertised reforestation jobs are filled annually by U.S. workers, the remaining 98% by H-2Bs.
Fire Season Picks Up: While the number of fires is about 10 percent below 10-year averages, and the number of acres burned remains more than 50 percent below average, the fire season is indeed picking up. Mixed dry and wet storms in Northern California sparked blazes that have grown quickly and diminished air quality in the central valley and Bay Area. National Forests make up about a third of all acres burned so far in 2020.
The Week Ahead: On Tuesday, July 28th, the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on carbon management (i.e. – carbon capture, storage, and utilization) technologies. We know one technology that works for sure.