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Conservation group likes Farm Bill’s forestry provision

Easement program would promote active management of private lands.

Tim Hearden, Western Farm Press

June 18, 2024

3 Min Read
A tree is cut down on private forest land near Viola, Calif.Tim Hearden

A Montana-based conservation group is lauding a proposed Farm Bill provision that would set up an easement program to actively manage private forest lands.

The 137-year-old Boone and Crockett Club likes a proposal by U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member John Boozman, R-Ark., that would add a forest component to the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and expand the existing Healthy Forest Reserve Program to support sustainable forest management and production on private and tribal lands.

The purpose of the proposed Forest Conservation Easement Program would be to “keep forests as forests” through the use of easements that purchase development rights from willing private and tribal landowners to prevent conversion to non-forest uses, according to the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit environmental and economic development organization.

“It would continue to be a working forest,” Boone and Crockett Club president James Cummins told Farm Press. “These are forests that might serve benefits such as buffering a military base, or there may be habitat for a species of salamander in California or another federally listed species. We can go in and incentivize and take care of those forests instead of always converting them to their highest and best use, which may be a solar farm, a wind farm or a housing development.”

Related:Boozman releases Senate farm bill framework

Under the easement program, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service would allow eligible entities such as states, local agencies, tribes, land trusts and non-governmental organizations to purchase working forest conservation easements from landowners, filling a critical void among federal programs, the Conservation Funds explains. Forest reserve easements would be used to protect species.

Working forests prioritized

Proponents say the FCEP program would:

  • Significantly improve and enhance the ability of the NRCS to effectively conserve working forests at scale through conservation easements;

  • Prioritize keeping forests as forests continuing to provide a multitude of environmental, economic, and societal benefits;

  • Help landowners restore, enhance and protect habitat for at-risk species while increasing carbon sequestration; and

  • Provide landowners with two proven options for placing voluntary conservation easements on their land, with one held by the federal government and one held by eligible entities and land trusts.

Boozman included the easement program in his proposed Farm Bill framework, which he introduced June 11, after similar legislation passed the House Agricultural Committee in bipartisan fashion. Its inclusion in Farm Bill drafts follows the bipartisan introduction of the Forest Conservation Easement Program Act of 2023.

Related:Farm bill barometer: Setting expectations

In early May, Senate Ag Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., released a broad outline of what she calls the Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act, which she says contains more than 100 bipartisan bills.

The outline’s section on forestry proposes to designate over 100,000 acres – the largest acreage ever protected in a Farm Bill – as wilderness, and addresses wildfire prevention, prescribed fire training and modernizing the U.S. Forest Service, but does not mention a forest easement program.

She is expected to propose a more detailed Farm Bill framework in the coming days.

“I was really pleased that it came out of the House Agriculture Committee,” Cummins said of the easement proposal. “I’m not sure where Sen. Stabenow is going, but I really hope they’re interested in passing something. It’s important to producers in the West and around the country.”

Founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, the Boone and Crockett Club promotes guardianship and management of big game and wildlife in North America. Over the years, its members pushed for enlarging and protecting Yellowstone and establishing Glacier and Denali national parks, founding the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and National Wildlife Refuge System, and other efforts, according to a release.

While the club doesn’t plan to administer forest easements, its team will keep pushing for funding for such programs and seek to help USDA and congressional leaders develop and oversee the program, spokeswoman Jodi Stemler said.

[This story has been updated with details of an initial set of proposals by Sen. Debbie Stabenow.]

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