November 11, 2013

In this Issue

WHITE HOUSE: NEW EXECUTIVE ORDER BUILDS ON CLIMATE ACTION PLAN

On Nov. 1, President Obama issued a new broad Executive Order, instructing federal agencies to help states strengthen their ability to cope with increasingly intense storms, severe droughts, wildfires and other various effects of climate change.

The Executive Order establishes a Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise the administration on how the federal government can respond to state and local concerns across the country on how to increase climate change preparedness. The task force will be comprised of governors, mayors, tribal leaders and other officials from across the country. The Executive Order instructs federal agencies to improve dissemination of tools to address climate change and help local communities to construct natural disaster-resilient infrastructure and natural resource and ecosystem resiliency.

The order also establishes a Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, involving 20 federal offices that will be charged with implementing the Executive Order. The council will be co-chaired by the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.

View the full Executive Order here.

A special issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment assesses the impacts of climate change on people and ecosystems this November, and includes an article on preparing for future environmental flux. To view the special issue, click here.

SCIENCE: LAWMAKERS REVIEW LEGISLATION TO REAUTHORIZE AMERICA COMPETES ACT

On Oct. 30, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee convened a hearing to consider a draft bill to partially reauthorize the America COMPETES Act, legislation to increase US federal investment in scientific research and innovation. However, there was debate among committee members over whether funding authorized in the bill was sufficient.

The Enabling Innovation for Science, Technology, and Energy in America (EINSTEIN) Act, the draft bill under consideration, would set science priorities for the Department of Energy (DOE). “The discussion draft requires the Department of Energy to coordinate with other federal agencies to streamline workplace regulations. This reduces burdensome red tape and provides the National Labs flexibility to more effectively and efficiently execute the Department’s mission,” stated House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).

Committee Democrats, however, expressed concerns with how the bill funds the DOE Office of Science.  “At first glance, one might think that the Majority’s bill actually increases funding for the Office, but a closer look reveals that they are actually cutting funding – the rate of inflation for research is about three percent, but the bill only provides year-to-year increases of one to 1.7 percent, in effect cutting the Office’s budget,” asserted Energy Subcommittee Ranking Member Eric Swalwell (D-CA). Democrats also criticized the bill for prioritizing biological systems and genomics sciences research over climate science and environmental research.

The original America COMPETES Act was last reauthorized in 2010. That reauthorization expired Sept. 30. In addition to DOE’s Office of Science, the original bill contained authorizations for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institute of Standards and Technology and DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Republicans are expected to introduce legislation to reauthorize NSF and other aspects of the original bill in separate legislation, which falls in line with the piecemeal approach House Republicans have taken in tackling other issues such as education and immigration.

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) has put forward alternative draft legislation that would fully reauthorize all the science agencies under the original America COMPETES Act. Entitled, the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2013, the bill includes provisions to reauthorize the Research Innovation Program and provide grants and other methods to boost participation in Science Technology Mathematics and Engineering participation among women and minorities.

While the Senate has yet to introduce its version of the America COMPETES Act reauthorization, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held its first hearing on the measure this week. Senate Democrats are expected to take a comprehensive approach to reauthorizing the measure in line with their House counterparts.

The Senate legislation stands a good chance of garnering bipartisan support. Testifying at the hearing, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who worked on the 2007 bill, called for doubling authorization funding over the original bill. Sen. Alexander asserted that if the US’s investment in scientific research as a percentage of Growth Domestic Product was on par with China, US investment in scientific research would be “four times” what it is now. Sen. Alexander called on lawmakers to tackle the reauthorization with the bipartisan enthusiasm that moved the original America COMPETES, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent and the House by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 367-57.  

View the full House America COMPETES hearing here.

View the Senate America COMPETES hearing here.

WILDFIRES: SUBCOMMITTEE REVIEWS FOREST SERVICE FUNDING SHORTFALLS

On Nov. 5, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources held a hearing examining how existing federal funding constraints can increase the risk of wildfires.

In his opening statement, Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bennet (D-CO) noted that expenses for wildfire fighting have “quadrupled” in recent years at the expense of other US Forest Service (USFS) programs such as trail maintenance and timber contracting. The now routine borrowing from other accounts has happened “for the seventh time over the last twelve years,” according to Chairman Bennett.  He also discussed the various negative effects of wildfires including damage to land and water infrastructure, soil erosion, mudslides and flash floods with many of these effects occurring residually a year after the original wildfire. Chairman Bennett emphasized the importance of preemptive mitigation of wildfires, asserting that a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that for every dollar the federal government invested in wildfire mitigation and prevention saves over five dollars in future costs of suppressing wildfire outbreaks.

Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR) noted that Congress’ tendency to implement repeated short-term continuing resolutions (CR) as well as omnibus spending measures as opposed to stand alone long-term bills has made it difficult to plan comprehensive long-term strategies for managing wildfires. He also called on measuring the effectiveness of USFS programs in light of the current fiscal constraints. (In contrast to stand-alone appropriations, omnibus spending measures and CRs tend not to provide the degree of specific direction that stand alone bills do).  

USFS Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard noted the impact of climate change on the intensity of wildfires as well as the length of wildfire season. In response to concerns from Ranking Member Boozman on the time spent on National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) compliance, Hubbard stated that the litigation caused by court challenges to NEPA are greater than any problems in implementing the law. Hubbard asserted that USFS is working to address concerns with NEPA before the litigation process starts in an effort to reduce this burden.

The hearing’s panelists included Chris Topik with The Nature Conservancy who touted his organization’s work on controlled burns and seconded Chairman Bennett’s earlier remarks regarding the need to increase funding for hazardous fuel reduction programs and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Topik also called for the establishment of a separate “wildland fire suppression disaster prevention fund.” He also touted the importance of nonfederal partnerships to collaborate in fire suppression efforts.    

For more information on the hearing, click here.

AGRICULTURE: CONFEREES NEGOTIATE FARM BILL COMPROMISE

This week, House and Senate conferees resumed negotiations for a finalized farm bill reauthorization. According to lead negotiators, a finalized conference report is expected by Thanksgiving of this year.

The conference committee consists of 41 Republican and Democrat members, most of whom currently serve on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. The negotiations are led by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS) and House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN).

How the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) is funded is expected to be highly contentious due to the extreme chasm that separates the House and Senate farm bills on the issue. The Senate bill cuts food stamps by $4 billion while that House bill would cut food stamps by $39 billion. The House bill also places work requirements on food stamp recipients that the Senate bill does not.

A provision in the Senate bill that would require farmers to meet conservation requirements in order to qualify for federal subsidies for crop insurance is also among the issues of contention. While Chairwoman Stabenow strongly supports the language, Chairman Lucas views it as an unnecessary regulatory burden for farmers. A large number of conservation groups have been pushing conferees to retain the conservation provisions. Environmental groups argue that the conservation requirements are particularly important to include as both the House and Senate bills eliminate the farm bill’s direct payment program, which had conservation requirements.

The Ecological Society of America recently joined over 275 organizations in sending a letter to farm bill conferees requesting support for the conservation compliance provisions as well as the sodsaver provision, which limits crop insurance, disaster payments and other federal benefits for newly broken land. In touting the sodsaver provision’s importance in preserving native grasslands, the letter states that “Most of the land that is being converted from native ecosystems to cropland is marginal, highly erodible, or prone to flooding. Bringing this marginally productive land into crop production provides little benefit to taxpayers, increases long-term costs due to erosion and nutrient loss, and ultimately leads to reduced water quality, less capacity to reduce flooding and the loss of valuable wildlife habitat.”

A finalized conference report would need to pass the Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-controlled Senate and be signed by the president. In the event the president vetoes the measure, two-thirds of the House and Senate would be needed to override the veto. While leaders are not anticipating reaching an agreement that the president would oppose, the last farm bill reauthorization from 2008 was enacted through Congress overriding a presidential veto.

To view the farm bill organizational letter, click here.

FORESTS: ESA SENDS LETTER TO CONGRESS ON EFFORTS TO LIMIT ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW

On October 29, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) penned a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee in response to an increasing number of legislative proposals that would limit National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews.

The letter outlines the important role NEPA plays in ensuring federal environmental policy decisions are informed by public input, including commentary from the scientific community. “Since its enactment in 1970, NEPA the law has played a critical role in providing an important channel of communication for the general public to inform federal agency decision-making,” the letter notes. “Through NEPA, public knowledge of environmental risks are improved as are federal agencies’ ability to make policy decisions informed by the local communities who would be most affected by a suggested proposal.”

The letter comes as the Natural Resources Committee has been moving on legislation that would ease forest harvesting capability at the expense of the NEPA review process. In September, the House passed H.R. 1526, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which would exempt certain logging projects from review under NEPA as well as the Endangered Species Act. H.R. 3188, the Yosemite Rim Fire Emergency Salvage Act, would exempt timber harvests after forest fires from environmental review requirements in the aforementioned laws. The House Natural Resources Committee has held hearings on the latter bill.

Both bills are unlikely gain traction in the Democratic-controlled Senate. ESA’s letter cites a guidance memorandum released by the Council on Environmental Quality as a partial starting point for policymakers to improve implementation of NEPA. “Instead of pushing legislation to curtail NEPA, we request that Members of Congress work in a bipartisan manner to improve the law’s functionality,” asserts the letter.

View the letter here.

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: SOCIETIES URGE PRESERVATION OF US BIOSPHERE RESERVES

In a joint letter to federal biosphere reserve administrators on October 29, the Ecological Society of America, the George Wright Society, and Organization of Biological Field Stations requested that administrators complete the paperwork required to allow the United States to continue its participation in the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

The United States, which has the world’s largest number of biosphere reserves, has been tardy in carrying out its periodic review requirements and delivering them to the US State Department. Biosphere reserves that fail to submit these review requirements before the end of calendar year 2013 will be delisted by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, which oversees the program. The joint letter emphasizes the biosphere reserves’ importance in fostering collaborations across various sector of the general public in the advancement of ecological research.

“Biosphere reserves provide a cooperative framework for facilitating and sustaining a multitude of activities in ecological research, conservation, and education that, when integrated, further our understanding of natural reserves and the landscapes containing them while maintaining vital ecosystem services for economic and recreational use by human communities,” states the letter. “Such services benefit federal, state and local natural resource educators and managers, private landowners, and the scientific community.”

View the full letter here.

FWS: NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGES GENERATE BILLIONS IN REVENUE

On Nov 5, the US Fish and Wildlife Service released a report documenting the economic contribution of national wildlife refuges.

The report concludes that in Fiscal Year (FY) 2011, the nation’s 561 wildlife refuges contributed $2.4 billion to the economy and supported over 35,000 jobs. According to the report, 75 percent of this money comes from “non-consumptive” recreational activities such as picnicking, hiking and photography. The remaining economic activity is generated through “consumptive uses” such as hunting, trapping and fishing.

The report, entitled Banking on Nature, finds that these refuges generated an average of $4.87 in economic output for every $1 appropriated in FY 2011. It also notes that spending by wildlife refuge visitors generates $343 million in federal, state, county and local tax revenue. 

Encompassing over 150 million acres of land, the National Wildlife Refuge System is the nation’s largest network of lands dedicated to wildlife preservation. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who touted the report during a visit to the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, hopes the report will encourage lawmakers to invest in federal conservation initiatives. 

View the full report here.

CURRENT POLICY

Approved by House Committee

H.R. 3316, the Grant Reform and New Transparency (GRANT) Act – Introduced by Rep. James Lankford (R-OK), the bill would require posting of grant applications and peer reviewers on a public website. The bill, introduced during the previous Congress, has received concern from the scientific research community. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved the bill Oct. 29 by a vote of 19-15.

The GRANT Act, which was also introduced in the previous Congress, has been opposed by scientific societies. To view the Coalition for National Science Funding organizational letter on the GRANT Act, click here.

Passed House

H.R. 2640, the Central Oregon Jobs and Water Security Act – Introduced by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the bill would allow new hydropower development in Prinevielle, Oregon. The bill passed the House Oct. 29 by a voice vote and has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Introduced in Senate

S. 1650, to exempt certain Alaska Native articles from prohibitions against sale of items containing non-edible migratory bird parts – Introduced Nov. 5 by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the bill would exempt the prohibition of sale of migratory bird parts that are used in some traditional and customary handicrafts made by Alaska Natives. The bill has been referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Companion legislation (H.R. 3109) has been introduced by Rep. Don Young (R-AK).

S. 1641, the West Virginia National Heritage Area Act of 2013 – Introduced Nov. 4 by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) the bill would fund National Park Service assistance for the Wheeling National Heritage Area and the National Coal Heritage Area. It would also designate the Appalachian Forest Heritage Area in West Virginia and part of Maryland as a National Heritage Area. The bill has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.


 Sources: American Association for the Advancement of Science, ClimateWire, Department of Interior, Energy and Environment Daily, E&E News PM, Greenwire, the Hill, House Science, Space and Technology Committee, the National Wildlife Federation, POLITICO, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Washington Post, the White House

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