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Policy News Update

September 25, 2007

In this issue: [Contract All : Expand All]

FORESTS: GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE CONCERNS FUEL SENATORS' IRE ON WILDFIRES

Concerns that global climate change might alter the makeup of North American forests and increase the risk of wildfires could fan the flames for congressional action on forest management. At an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on September 24, Western senators lamented the Forest Service's pace in treating at-risk forests since the passage of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act four years ago. They noted that wildfires continue to burn millions of acres and cost the federal government billions of dollars, with no end in sight, and some blamed global climate change.

The hearing was the first to specifically consider the effect of rising temperatures on wildfire activity, though Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) noted the issue came up at a hearing 27 years ago.

Forest Service and academic models predict large changes in fire regimes and vegetation patterns, tying rising temperatures to longer and hotter summer wildfire seasons and the spread of invasive species and diseases.

"It's high time our federal land management agencies begin to factor in the effects of climate change," Bingaman said. "It sounds like they're just getting started.”

Bingaman noted that no specific follow-up measure is planned at the moment, but his comments come as the House-passed energy bill includes provisions that would force land management agencies to address the effects of global climate change on federal lands, oceans and water infrastructure. The intra-agency panel would be charged with developing a common protocol for considering climate change in resource management decisions.

The House bill also includes language that would force the Interior Department and other agencies to establish a national program to mitigate the effects of climate change on wildlife populations and apply those findings to day-to-day management strategies.

ENDANGERED SPECIES: SENATE FINANCE PANEL APPROVES TAX BREAKS FOR CONSERVATION

Landowners who act to help endangered species on their property could qualify for new tax breaks under bipartisan legislation that the Senate Finance Committee approved September 21.

The panel approved the "Habitat and Land Conservation Act," which would give tax credits and deductions to farmers, ranchers and other landowners who set aside land or make efforts to improve habitat on their property.

Sens. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) introduced the bill more than six months ago with bipartisan support. Landowner and environmental groups have been pushing the tax incentive idea since the early 1990s, but Congress paid greater attention in recent years to more wide-ranging attempts to overhaul the Endangered Species Act.

One concern that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) raised at the hearing was the way the committee would pay for the tax credits. The wildlife incentives are expected to cost almost $3.2 billion over the next 10 years. The Committee offset that spending by retroactively backing up the date for companies to comply with closure of a tax "loophole" that the Senate had approved two years ago.

Lobbyists following the bill said they expect the House to find a different offset if it advances the measure. Reps. Mike Thompson (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK), have introduced a companion bill in the House.

Under the proposal, property owners would develop a species management plan with the Interior Department and receive tax benefits or deductions for habitat restoration that complies with the plan.

Landowners could qualify for tax breaks by conserving land for species protection that would otherwise not be required under the Endangered Species Act, including protecting endangered plants, which are not as stringently protected under the law as animals.

The bill also gives tax breaks to farmers who participate in more active management, like installing fences to keep cows out of streams. Landowners could also apply for conservation easements, separate from existing easement programs in the farm bill.

AGRICULTURE: HARKIN MIGHT EXTEND CURRENT FARM BILL

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) indicated September 18 that he expects his committee to vote on the farm bill in the next three weeks but added that he has not ruled out the option of extending the current measure.

Harkin is struggling to fit his big plans to increase spending on conservation, nutrition and energy programs within a budget that requires him to stay under the baseline estimates for the current farm bill. He has been hoping to get some extra funding from the Senate Finance Committee, but that committee's chairman, Max Baucus (D-MT), has his own plan that focuses on a fund to pay for permanent disaster assistance.

Harkin said he will move ahead with the farm bill before the Oct. 6 Columbus Day recess, even if he does not have more money from the Finance Committee by then. But Harkin acknowledged he might not have enough support on his own panel to pass the farm bill he desires.

Also on Harkin's priority list for the farm bill is a new requirement that would cut off federal support for anyone who plows up prairies and grasslands. Harkin touted the "sodsaver" provision, pointing out that a new study shows that subsidies have encouraged U.S. farmers to plow up millions of acres of grasslands and convert them to row crops.

The new report prepared by the Government Accountability Office found that farm program payments are an "important factor" in producer decisions to convert grasslands.

"We need to have farm policy that protects farmers and the environment from unintended consequences," Harkin said.

Currently, farmers can receive crop subsidies, crop insurance and disaster payments for crops planted on former grasslands. Harkin wants to cut off all three in his sodsaver requirement in the farm bill. The House-passed farm bill has a less stringent measure that would cut off only crop insurance.

EVERGLADES : EPA POLLUTION STUDY RAISES STAKES FOR RESTORATION

New findings by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show persistently high levels of toxic mercury and oxygen-robbing phosphorus across much of the Florida Everglades. These should serve as a call to Congress and the Bush Administration not to waver in their commitment to restore the endangered wetland, stakeholder groups say.

Released September 19, the latest scientific assessment on the Everglades ' ecological health, by EPA's Southeast regional office, sought to strike a balance between good news and bad. Some indicators show signs of improving conditions, while others point to ongoing problems with "legacy pollution" that has settled across more than half of the 2,063-square-mile wetland.

Authors of the EPA study said the report is intended to help the two primary federal agencies in charge of Everglades restoration -- the Army Corps of Engineers and the Interior Department -- enhance their knowledge of how pollution is moving through the system and where it is most concentrated.

But stakeholder and watchdog groups monitoring the state and federal government's multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration efforts say the data reveal just how difficult that road ahead will be for returning the River of Grass to its former splendor.

Moreover, they say the Everglades will continue to languish until the government gets serious about enforcing water quality standards for pollutants such as phosphorus, which appears at even higher soil concentrations than a decade ago.

As such, stakeholder groups say the federal government cannot ease off its commitment to fund and implement the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which now is expected to cost upward of $9 billion.

AGRICULTURE: BUSH TAPS USDA'S TOP DEPUTY TO REPLACE JOHANNS

President Bush announced the resignation of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns September 20 and tapped the Agriculture Department's (USDA) second in command, Chuck Conner, to become Acting Secretary.

Bush praised Johanns for his work on the farm bill, his "commitment to conservation," and as a "champion of renewable fuels." Johanns is returning to Nebraska to run for the seat of retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE).

While Johanns' departure in the midst of the farm bill leaves the Administration without one of its chief advocates, the transition to Conner is expected to be a smooth one. His appointment was quickly praised by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA).

While Johanns was the political face of the Administration's farm bill proposals, holding listening sessions and farm bill forums with farmers across the country, Conners has been more intimately involved with pushing its ideas on Capitol Hill.

But Conner's involvement in the farm bill could cause some difficulty in his confirmation process, if he were nominated for the permanent Secretary's post. Conner has pushed the Administration's plans to cut back some of the traditional crop subsidies and place an income limit on farmers to receive them. Those ideas have not gone over well with some members, especially those like Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) from Southern states with large cotton and rice farms that could lose out under the proposal.

Prior to joining USDA in 2005, Conner was a Special Assistant on agricultural trade and food assistance in the White House. In that post, he focused on the farm bill and worked with Congress to draft the 2002 bill. He also led the Senate Agriculture Committee's Republican staff from 1987-1995, under then-Chairman Richard Lugar (IN).

COALITION FOR NATIONAL SCIENCE FUNDING CONDUCTS HILL VISITS

On September 18 and 19, over 40 scientists, engineers, and educators visited over 65 congressional offices of 11 states to advocate for the National Science Foundation.  Organized by the Coalition for National Science Funding, the event offered thanks to Members of Congress for their strong support for the agency and asked that the high marks provided by both the House and Senate (about a 10 percent increase in both) be maintained as Congress continues the appropriations process for fiscal year 2008. 

Officially, the federal fiscal year ends on September 30, 2007 , but Congress will not have completed work by then and there is talk of a possible six month continuing resolution.  A continuing resolution keeps the federal government running at funding levels from the previous year.  The Ecological Society of America helped organize the event and ESA member Osvaldo Sala from Brown University participated on an interdisciplinary team of scientists who visited the Rhode Island delegation.  Representatives Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) and Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) spoke at the evening reception held for the participants.


Sources: Energy and Environment Daily and Greenwire

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