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Most sweeping forestry changes out of key farm bill, sources say

by Tal Kopan, San Francisco Chronicle |

WASHINGTON — A typically noncontroversial part of Congress’ must-pass farm bill has become a flash point in the aftermath of California wildfires that President Trump blamed on neglected forests, prompting House and Senate leadership to intervene in negotiations over how to regulate federally owned woodlands.

Still, sources say it’s not clear whether the bill will result in many new tools to combat increasingly devastating fires. And lawmakers have largely resisted a push to include the most contested provisions sought by House Republicans and the Trump administration.

The twice-a-decade farm bill authorizes money and sets policy for agriculture and food security, and must be passed by the end of the year to keep the nation’s food industry and safety net functioning. The bill also sets broad guidelines for managing federally owned forests, as the U.S. Forest Service is a division of the Department of Agriculture.

Congressional negotiators working to reconcile starkly different House and Senate versions of the bill say they have reached a deal in principle on legislation that will be sent back to both chambers for a vote. But congressional leaders are closely guarding details, and negotiators caution that some elements could change.

According to sources close to the negotiations, the compromise version will more closely resemble the bipartisan Senate bill than the House measure that narrowly passed with only Republican votes. It is expected to waive some environmental reviews for removal of trees and other growth that is insect-ridden, diseased or deemed to be a fire hazard.

However, the bill will allow such waivers over smaller tracts of land than what House Republicans had sought, the sources said. The House bill would have doubled the size of waivers to cover 6,000 acres of forest at a time.

The bill will also expand “good neighbor” provisions to allow county and tribal governments to help manage forests and watersheds on federal land. And it will boost programs intended to promote forest restoration and preservation between government and nongovernmental entities.

The forestry provisions are an unlikely attention-getter for the farm bill. Most of the public debate over the legislation has centered on House Republicans’ attempts to expand work requirements for food-stamp recipients, but that effort died after the GOP was routed in the House midterm elections.

After fires in Butte County and Southern California killed a combined 88 people last month, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke began pushing the farm bill as a vehicle for possible fire prevention provisions. Trump falsely claimed that the farm bill would contain $500 million in wildfire relief and pressed for improved forest management in California over what he says are environmentalists standing in the way.

More than half of forestland in California is owned by the federal government, while state and local agencies own just 3 percent.

Touring the Camp Fire devastation in Butte County, Trump said the president of Finland had told him “they spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t have any problem.” Finnish President Sauli Niinisto later denied ever discussing raking with Trump, and many forestry experts said Trump’s comments were a gross oversimplification of the issue.

Zinke authored an opinion piece pushing for the House version of the farm bill and more forest-clearing and logging, which he labeled “active management” of forests. He and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called for expanded rights to log on federal land and for waiving many environmental restrictions on tree cutting.

As Trump administration officials focused on the forestry provisions, congressional leaders took over negotiations on those measures from agriculture committee chairs. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was among those who became involved in the closed-door discussions, aides say.

Some lawmakers have chafed at the secrecy surrounding the bill, including Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif. He called the House-passed bill a “partisan monstrosity” and said he’s been communicating his concerns to Pelosi.

“We have just been kept completely in the dark,” Huffman said. “It’s just been incredibly closely held, so concerns have been expressed, and I’m certainly hopeful that we don’t see any overreach, but I’m watching carefully. ... I don’t trust the Republican majority in its final days to be thoughtful conservationists.”

Perdue conceded this week that the administration largely lost on the provisions it had wanted in the farm bill, according to Politico. He said the administration could try to push a stand-alone bill instead.

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said the compromise bill will “follow a timber harvesting plan that will keep our forests safer, cleaner, and a forest management plan that conserves our water.”

Environmental groups and Democrats say they’re not trying to stand in the way of reasonable forest management. But they argue that Republicans are disingenuously pushing for provisions that would vastly increase logging and circumvent input from communities and scientists.

Environmental groups also argue that the administration is ignoring climate change as a driving factor in wildfires and is pushing for increased logging, when what’s needed are stronger building codes and landscape designs that create fire breaks between homes and woodlands.

“What the California fires have confirmed is that the best way to protect structures is by creating defensible space, and there’s a suite of things that can be done to give structures the best chance of surviving a wildfire,” said Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Logging in the back country is not one of them.”

Democrats question why the administration is pushing for more authority to bypass environmental laws when Congress passed similar and less sweeping measures in March.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pressed Perdue in October for information on what the government had done under those powers. He has not replied.

The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee said the administration needed to demonstrate how those new laws worked before asking for broader authority to log forests.

“To my knowledge, those haven’t been used yet,” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow told The Chronicle. “So we’d love to have those used so we can see how it goes.”