Leadership Corner

Farm Bill Accomplishment Highlights

November 6th, 2019 at 10:34AM
Lenise Lago in uniform.
Associate Chief Lenise Lago

Through the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, better known as the Farm Bill, Congress has given the USDA Forest Service more of the tools and authorities we need to care for the land and serve people. As you know, national priorities for the Forest Service include providing excellent customer service, promoting shared stewardship by being a good neighbor, and improving the condition of forests and grasslands. In fiscal year 2019, we worked with partners to carry out provisions of the Farm Bill in accordance with all three national priorities.

The Farm Bill expanded our Good Neighbor Authority by authorizing the Forest Service to enter into GNA agreements with counties and tribes and by allowing states to apply funds from the sale of federal timber under a GNA agreement to future work under the agreement. We are updating our GNA directive accordingly and have sent a revised GNA agreement template to forests and districts. We also established a challenge-cost share agreement with the Intertribal Timber Council to carry out demonstration projects under GNA using resources originally established under the Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004.

Under the Farm Bill, we proposed rules for reducing the regulatory burden on our permittees, a great way of improving customer service and sharing stewardship. One rule would streamline applications for constructing broadband infrastructure on the National Forest System, giving local communities better online service. Another rule would let operators of powerlines on the National Forest System participate in a pilot program for vegetation management to reduce risks of power outages and wildfire ignitions from downed powerlines.

Another way of improving customer service and being a good neighbor is to convey small tracts of national forest land to state, private, municipal, and other owners when it makes sense. Under the Farm Bill, we are proposing a new rule for conveying such tracts. The new rule would apply to up to 40 acres of land that have lost their distinct wildland character and that have a value of up to $500,000. The rule would also allow us to convey landfills, sewage treatment plants, and cemeteries on the National Forest System to private or municipal landowners.

As you might know, the national forests and grasslands furnish drinking water to 60 million Americans in 3,400 communities, especially in the West. The Farm Bill authorized a new Water Source Protection Program to protect and restore municipal watersheds on the National Forest System. We have launched the new program through public-private partnerships with water owners and municipal water administrators. Under the Farm Bill, we are also updating our Watershed Condition Framework for classifying watersheds on the National Forest System so we can place our watershed restoration projects in the right places at the right scales.

We are absolutely committed to the letter and spirit of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Regulations under the law allow us to allow us to streamline and right-size our environmental analysis to fit the scope and scale of the proposed action, through categorical exclusions in ways that have been strengthened by later legislation, including the Farm Bill itself. We are improving our customer service by creating a database of frequently asked questions about categorical exclusions under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003.

As you know, our core business at the USDA Forest Service includes improving conditions on forests and grasslands across the nation. The Farm Bill updated and strengthened our Landscape Scale Restoration Program for working with the states to support cross-jurisdictional priorities in the forest action plans written by all 50 states. We are in the process of revising the corresponding grants program for state and private projects to improve forest conditions, and we expect to post it in the Federal Register in spring 2020.

Under the Farm Bill, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue signed charters for federal advisory committees in September 2019. One committee will support the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, reauthorized by the Farm Bill through fiscal year 2023. The Farm Bill also increased authorized spending under the program from $40 million to $80 million and allowed for projects approved in fiscal year 2012 to be extended for up to 10 years. In addition, the Farm Bill strengthened the Secure Rural Schools Resource Advisory Committee Program for better customer service and broader sharing of stewardship with states and counties.

The Forest Service deeply appreciates Congress for passing a Farm Bill that includes so many tools and authorities we need to fulfill our mission. I would like to extend my personal thanks to everyone in the Forest Service who worked so hard to implement the Farm Bill by operationalizing its provisions for improving customer service, promoting shared stewardship, and improving the condition of forests and grasslands across our nation.

Editor’s note: Click in the link ahead for more information on the 2018 Farm Bill [Internal Link].