ESA Policy News, January 31, 2014: farm bill conservation wins, record CA drought, comment on the prairie chicken

Here are some highlights from the latest ESA Policy News by Policy Analyst Terence Houston.  Read the full Policy News here.

STATE OF THE UNION: OBAMA HAILS 2014 AS ‘YEAR OF ACTION

After a year of very few real legislative achievements in Congress outside of averting a politically self-inflicted federal government shutdown, President Obama cautioned that continued gridlock and inaction from the legislative branch during the second session of the current 113th Congress will spur unilateral action from the executive branch.

President Obama praised Congress for coming together on a budget that offers some relief for sequestration, and urged the body to move forward on administration proposals that create jobs and advance opportunity for Americans.

The president’s call to get the economy moving included a request for Congress to increase funding for scientific research. “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow,” said Obama.  “This is an edge America cannot surrender.  Federally-funded research helped lead to the ideas and inventions behind Google and smart phones.  That’s why Congress should undo the damage done by last year’s cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery – whether it’s vaccines that stay ahead of drug-resistant bacteria, or paper-thin material that’s stronger than steel.”

The president touted the United States’ energy successes such as higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and investments in solar. While noting that these efforts have led to a “cleaner, safer planet” he maintained that more needs to be done to tackle the issue of climate change. “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth,” said President Obama.  “But we have to act with more urgency – because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods.  That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities, and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air.”

The full address is available for listening and reading here.

AGRICULTURE: FARM BILL CONFERENCE REPORT INCLUDES WINS FOR CONSERVATION

On Jan. 27, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Ranking Member Thad Cochran (R-MS), House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Ranking Member Collin Peterson (D-MN) unveiled the final conference report for a new farm bill reauthorization.

H.R. 2642, the Agricultural Act of 2014, renews federal agricultural programs through the end of Fiscal Year 2018 while implementing a number of consolidations and spending reductions to federal agriculture programs. The bill passed the House by a vote of 251-166 with 63 Republicans and 103 Democrats opposing. Opposition came from Democrats concerned with the food stamp cuts and Republicans who felt the cuts in the bill didn’t go far enough.

Similar to both the House and Senate farm bills, the bill consolidates 23 existing conservation programs into 13, largely by incorporating smaller programs into larger ones. A provision from the Senate bill, requiring farmers and ranchers to abide by basic conservation measures in exchange for federal subsidies for crop insurance on highly erodible land and wetlands, was included in the conference report as was a sod saver provision, which preserves native prairie through various subsidy reduction measures intended to discourage farmers from agricultural production on native grasslands. Similar to the Senate legislation, the bill also includes mandatory funding ($881 million) for renewable energy programs.

The bill includes new requirements for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board to examine farm policy regulations and increase public transparency. However, the requirements are considerably less restrictive than the “Sound Science Act” language in the House bill, which would have prevented federal agencies from issuing new regulations until a somewhat vague and lofty set of requirements were met in an attempt to ensure such regulatory efforts are science-based. Advocacy organizations and some congressional Democrats had complained that the provision’s language requiring federal agencies to favor data that is “experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible,” would exclude certain theoretical or statistical research.

The Ecological Society of America had joined several environmental organizations last fall in urging support for the farm bill’s conservation provisions. To view the 2013 farm bill conservation programs letter, click here. Additional information on the 2014 farm bill reauthorization is available here.

HOUSE: CLIMATE CHANGE ADVOCATE WAXMAN ANNOUNCES RETIREMENT

Congress will lose one of its most vocal proponents of legislative action to address climate change when House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry Waxman (D-CA) retires at the end of this year.

On Jan. 30, Rep. Waxman announced that the 113th Congress would be his last, ending a congressional career spanning 40 years. Waxman was the primary sponsor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, comprehensive climate change legislation, which sought to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. The bill passed the House in President Obama’s first year in office, but failed to gain traction in the Senate. Despite this legislative setback, Waxman remained a vocal proponent of the administration’s Environmental Protection Agency initiatives that sought to address climate change.

Waxman, along with Reps. Bobby Rush (D-IL), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ed Markey (D-MA) and Ben Cardin (D-MD), co-chair the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, founded in Jan. 2013. The task force seeks to raise public awareness of climate change and develop policy proposals to address the issue. The group has held hearings, issued written correspondence to federal agency officials as well as offered praise towards agency efforts that seek to reduce manmade greenhouse gas emissions.

A full listing of Members of Congress departing at the end of this Congress is available here.

INTERIOR: HOUSE DEMOCRATS URGE JEWELL TO PROTECT FEDERAL LANDS

On Jan. 24, House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) spearheaded a letter to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell requesting that the president use his executive authority under the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments as a way to bypass Congress in ensuring the protection of federal lands.

“In today’s deeply partisan environment, it’s becoming nearly impossible for Congress to make critical conservation decisions,” the letter states. “The 112th Congress was the first Congress in 40 years that failed to permanently protect any of America’s treasured landscapes. The current Congress is on a path to repeat that abysmal record. There are 37 land designation bills sitting before Congress that have broad public support.”

View the full letter, here.

WATER: CALIFORNIA STRUGGLES WITH RAMIFICATIONS OF RECORD DROUGHT

California state government officials are currently reviewing techniques to expand the state’s water supply and reduce water usage amid a record breaking drought. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared an official drought emergency on Jan. 17, making his state eligible for federal government emergency funding assistance.

The water crisis has reignited a partisan debate about a San Joaquin River restoration program. On Jan. 29, Rep. David Valadao (R-CA) was joined by 14 California Republican House Members in introducing H.R. 3964, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act. The legislation would improve water delivery to Central Valley California communities by ending the San Joaquin River restoration program. The bill is strongly opposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Diane Feinstein (D-CA).

This week, the state of California also released its California Water Action plan, which includes goals to cut individual water usage, expand water storage capacity as well as improve groundwater management and flood protection. View the California water action plan here.

Information on the NRDP is available here. The Sen. Feinstein response to H.R. 3964 is available here.

FWS: PUBLIC COMMENT OPPORTUNITY EXTENDED FOR PRARIE CHICKEN

On Jan. 29, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that it is reopening the public comment opportunity period for a proposed rule that would allow harm to the chickens if they were considered incidental in implementing a conservation plan in the states that constitute the animals’ native habitat: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

The harm exemption rule would only apply to the animal if it receives a “threatened” listing under the Endangered Species Act. FWS is expected to reach a decision by March 31. FWS is accepting comments both on the proposed harm exemption as well as the proposal to list the prairie chicken as a threatened species.

The new deadline to submit comments is Feb. 12, 2014. Information on the proposed rule and how to submit comments is available here.

Additional background on the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Range-Wide Conservation Plan is available here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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