2014 Farm Bill expands forest aid

WASHINGTON – The new Farm Bill includes three provisions introduced by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to improve forest health.

The Agricultural Act of 2014, or Farm Bill, that President Barack Obama signed into law Friday at Michigan State University is a five-year plan that provides more than $100 billion a year in federal funding for U.S. Department of Agriculture projects, including those done by the Forest Service.

Two of the measures introduced by Bennet, D-Colo., permanently reauthorize and expand programs previously in place in Colorado: state and private partnerships with the Forest Service.

“Anybody who is downstream from Colorado – and that’s basically the entire country – ought to care about forest health in Colorado and ought to care about water quality in Colorado,” Bennet said Jan. 30 in a speech on the Senate floor. “I think we were heard in this bill, and I deeply appreciate that.”

Another Bennet-introduced provision in the Farm Bill is the National Forest Insect and Disease Treatment Act. It creates a program through which national forest acreage in each state can obtain expedited treatments for insect and disease problems if they meet specific criteria, streamlining a sometimes-lengthy process.

A treatment area will be proposed by the U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in the next 60 days. After that, additional treatment areas can be designated.

“This is a great tool that helps further our regional priorities of ecological restoration and resilience,” said Chris Strebig, a spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Regional Office of the U.S. Forest Service.

Strebig did not yet have any information about what areas may be proposed for the expedited treatments.

“It is very encouraging to see these initiatives, especially with the emphasis on watershed and water quality as they relate to forest health,” said Aaron Kimple, program coordinator for the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership. The partnership is a community group of stakeholders focused on improving forest health in the San Juan Mountains.

However, Kimple has concerns about the relationship between beetles and the propensity for wildfires, especially during the different stages of the treatment process.

“It behooves the Forest Service to figure out where to work and how to be safest about a possible treatment,” he said.

The Farm Bill includes a Bennet-introduced act that will permanently reauthorize nationwide stewardship contracting authority for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Stewardship contracts are long-term, public-private partnerships on projects that promote forest health.

In 2012, a 10-year stewardship contract was awarded to Pagosa Cattle Co. of Pagosa Springs. This project allows the contractor to remove small trees and brush from the San Juan National Forest with the aim of reducing wildfire fuels and increasing forest health. The biomass is turned into electricity in collaboration with Renewable Forest Energy LLC.

“We have benefited greatly from this arrangement,” Kimple said. “It has served as an example and gained a lot of recognition about how to go about creating a partnership.”

Both of these acts were co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

Bennet also added an amendment in the Farm Bill that permanently reauthorizes good-neighbor agreements nationwide. The agreements allow state forestry departments to carry out limited health treatments on adjacent federal lands. Previously, these agreements were in place only as a pilot program in Colorado and Utah.

“These are a great tools, and I’m excited to see their reauthorization,” said Joe Duda, deputy state forester at the Colorado State Forest Service. “The projects are not always very large, but allowing us to work on critical lands adjacent to those we’re already treating makes a lot of sense.”

Duda hopes to expand the Colorado State Forest Service’s good-neighbor projects with reauthorization of the agreements. He says the projects are very efficient and are especially important given limited funding of both the state and the U.S. Forest Service.

kfiegenbaum@durangoherald.com. Katie Fiegenbaum is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.