ESA Policy News: November 11: President’s climate action plan, farm bill compromise and FS funding shortfalls

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

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.

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.  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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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. 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.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. View the full report here.

Author: Terence Houston

Science Policy Analyst for ESA.

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