In This Issue
The House passed a nearly $17 billion fiscal year 2006 agriculture bill, providing over $2 billion for various conservation and environmental programs but still falling millions of dollars short of conservation levels set in the 2002 farm bill. The Senate is expected to take up its farm spending measure in late June.
Several environmental riders made it into the bill — including amendments to increase funds for watersheds and invasive species.
The spending measure includes almost $940 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and $794 million for conservation operations, cutting the program by over $60 million from the FY ’05 funding levels. It also limits a number of conservation programs below the level authorized by the farm bill.
The 2002 farm bill had the largest conservation title U.S. agriculture had seen, creating an array of programs to pay farmers to idle farmland for wildlife habitat or make environmental improvements on working land. The legislation set mandatory funding levels and called for them to increase each year.
But in the face of tight budgets, appropriators have set limits on the programs every year. Farm bill conservation programs have already seen cuts of $3.8 billion below the levels set in the landmark agriculture authorization, according to the American Farmland Trust.
The programs have been very popular with farmers, with the NRCS only able to fund one out of every four farmers who applies for the programs.
The Conservation Security Program, the new “green payments” program for working lands, would come in at $258 million — more than $50 million higher the program has ever seen before but not up to the levels of uncapped entitlement as was envisioned in the farm bill.
Lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill introduced two separate comprehensive oceans bills. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) floated a new wide-ranging oceans bill, while Reps. Sam Farr (D-CA), Tom Allen (D-ME) and Curt Weldon (R-PA) from the House Oceans Caucus took the cover off a revamped version of their large oceans bill, similar to an effort they put forward last year.
Both bills push for greater research, investment and protection of ocean resources, in response to calls last year by the nonprofit Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy for better ecosystem-based management. But it remains questionable if the bills will see attention in committee, since the chairmen of those panels are already gearing up for oceans legislation of their own.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) has said he would like to work on his own fisheries bill, a reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. And House Fisheries Subcommittee Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) has also said he would work on Magnuson-Stevens, as well as adding resources elements to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) organic Act already passed by the House Science Committee.
Boxer’s legislation would restructure oceans governance, making NOAA independent and creating a Council on Ocean Stewardship. The bill revamps fishery management, requiring NOAA and regional fishery councils to develop plans to protect and sustain fish populations and requiring an ecosystem-based approach to determining the health of a fishery.
The House proposal — the “Oceans Conservation, Education, and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act” (OCEANS-21) — would put ecosystem-based management as a top priority and create a Cabinet-level committee on ocean policy.
The Bush administration unveiled legislation aimed at increasing five-fold the amount of fish produced in domestic fish farms by 2025. The legislation would establish a process for setting up farms in federal waters three to 200 miles off the coast, where private companies would be able to operate farms under 10-year renewable leases — a significant departure from current regulations, which confine fish farming to near-shore state waters. Officials hope to grow the U.S. fish farming industry from $1 billion per year to $5 billion per year and cut seafood imports, which now constitute more than 70 percent of U.S. production. The legislation, which would open 3.4 million square miles of ocean to fish farming, follows the recommendations of the Commission on Ocean Policy.
“We need to operate our fisheries in the U.S. as a business,” said National Marine Fisheries Service Director William Hogarth. “Wild-capture fisheries will not be able to meet future demand.”
Fish farming is controversial, however — disease and parasites sometimes spread from farms to wild fish, farmed fish can interbreed with wild species, and chemicals from the farms can accumulate in coastal waters.
“I believe aquaculture is incredibly important,” said Ecological Society of America member Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State zoology professor. “Now is the time to make sure it grows in a way that is good for human health and the environment. I would like to see the right kinds of checks and balances before we launch into this massive offshore experiment and it is too late.”
Lubchenco, a member of the Pew Oceans Commission that recommended in 2003 halting the expansion of fish farming until national standards are developed, said fish farms should focus on herbivores and omnivorous freshwater fish due to their lower environmental impact.
The Senate Finance Committee will forge ahead this summer with a proposal to revamp federal tax law for donations of land and conservation easements, according to the panel Chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
Changes sought by the committee include creation of an accreditation system for conservation groups and increased public disclosure for charities. Additionally, Grassley’s committee will examine changes to the tax code recommended by the Joint Committee on Taxation. Those changes include reducing the deduction taken on donation of land easements from 100 percent to 33 percent or less and limiting farmers’ ability to deduct the value of easements if they continue to live on the property.
Conservationists said such changes would severely impact nonprofit groups’ ability to preserve open space. “If those recommendations were enacted, it would virtually stop private donations of land conservation in America,” said Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance.
Concerns over the use and abuse of easements for tax purposes began in part after a Washington Post series alleged the Nature Conservancy spent millions of dollars to buy land, placed development restrictions on it and then resold it to the group’s supporters at a discount.
Mayors of 50 cities worldwide convened at an annual U.N. World Environment Day conference and marked the event by signing a set of 21 urban environmental accords. The ratification of the Urban Environment Accords, designed to fight global warming and increase sustainability, was the capstone of the meeting, which this year focused on “green cities.” The signatories pledged to improve the environment of their cities in seven broad areas: energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health and water.
Pollution and consumption of water in China are growing so fast that more than 100 of the country’s biggest cities could soon be unable to quench the thirst of their populations, a Chinese cabinet minister warned.
Qiu Baoxing, Deputy Minister of Construction, said urgent action was needed to halt the deterioration of water supplies, which is increasingly cited as an economic risk and a cause of public protests.
Home to the world’s biggest population – 1.3 billion people – and some of the driest regions on the globe, China has always had a water problem, but the strains have steadily worsened in the past 25 years as industrialization and urbanization have surged ahead. While international attention has focused on economic growth rates of more than 9 percent a year, local concerns have increasingly centered on the decline in water and air quality.
The assessment came after a Chinese government report admitted the country failed to improve its environment last year despite a series of policy announcements and speeches on the subject by leaders. According to the report industrial toxins, human waste and agricultural fertilizer have polluted all seven of the country’s major rivers and 25 out of the 27 major lakes.
“China has taken many steps to control the water contamination, but its speed across the country has not been arrested,” Liu Hongzhi, the official responsible for pollution control in the state environmental protection agency, said. “China has failed to list water conservation in its social and economic plan in the past several years.” A quarter of the population lacks access to clean drinking water.
Federal police targeted Brazil’s environmental protection agency Thursday in a crackdown on illegal logging, arresting 48 officials and several independent businessmen. Authorities alleged that officials within the agency, Ibama, were responsible for allowing the illegal clearing of 119,000 acres of Amazon rainforest over the past two years — much of it on Indian reservations and in national parks.
Among those arrested was Hugo Jose Scheuer Werle, Ibama’s top official in Mato Grosso state. Werle is accused of accepting money from loggers in exchanges for documents declaring the wood was legally removed from the rainforest.
The crackdown, announced by Justice Minister Marcio Thomaz Bastos and Environment Minister Maria Silva in Brasilia, the capital, comes just weeks after the government said the Amazon rainforest was disappearing at an alarming rate. In May, the government announced that the Amazon rainforest shrank by 10,000 square miles in the 12-month period ending last August.
Almost half that destruction occurred in Mato Grosso state, where Werle was in charge of approving forestry management plans submitted by loggers to ensure they complied with strict environmental laws in the Amazon.
Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton announced the resignation of Dr. Charles Groat as Director of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), effective June 17, 2005. Dr. Groat will resume his academic career at the University of Texas at Austin.
In his letter of resignation to President Bush, Groat said his term as USGS Director has been the most challenging and rewarding part of his career.
“As the need for a more thorough understanding of complex natural systems and their interaction with human activities has grown, I have endeavored to increase the ability of the USGS to provide this knowledge,” he said. “By reducing internal organizational barriers to collaborative research among our geology, water, biology, geography, and geospatial information disciplines, we have been a leader in integrated approaches to scientific inquiry.”
A permanent replacement must be nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Sources: BBC News; Environment & Energy Daily; Greenwire; London Guardian; San Francisco Chronicle; www.USGS.gov; The Washington Post