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Federal Legislation Directing Funds Into USDA Conservation & Climate Initiatives

This post was written by FLPC student Caroline Jaschke.

Two current big ticket legislative bills – the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better – contain numerous provisions funding conservation and climate-related initiatives that would impact programs within the farm bill. These programs include forest management programs, climate adaptation initiatives, and Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) working lands programs. While the infrastructure bill’s overlap with the farm bill’s environmental programs is mostly confined to Forest Service initiatives, Build Back Better touches on a broader range of areas to provide significant investments in climate adaptation measures.

On November 15, President Biden signed into law a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The infrastructure bill is the “largest infusion of federal investment into infrastructure projects in more than a decade.” The bill invests in a wide range of infrastructure, from the nation’s roads, bridges, and public transportation, to the nation’s water and energy systems, to expanded broadband access. The funding is also intended to make the U.S.’s infrastructure more resilient to the effects of climate change and to support the transition to a zero-emissions future. In combination with President Biden’s Build Back Better Framework, the infrastructure bill is predicted to create 1.5 million jobs per year over the next 10 years.

The President’s Build Back Better Framework is a $1.75 trillion social spending and tax breaks package that the President hopes to pass into law via budget reconciliation. Many of the pieces from Biden’s initial $2.6 trillion infrastructure plan that did not make it into the final version of the bill are expected to be included in the budget. This includes investments in climate research and clean energy. The Build Back Better Framework aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by over one gigaton in 2030 and to invest in “climate smart practices” across “buildings, transportation, industry, electricity, and agriculture.” The House passed the budget reconciliation package on November 19. The package included almost “$570 billion in tax credits and investments aimed at combating climate change.” The package also calls for establishment of a Civilian Climate Corps that would be responsible for public lands conservation and supporting community resilience to climate change. Now the bill sits with the Senate where under budget reconciliation procedures it only needs 50 votes to pass. No Republican votes will be required, so long as support from Democrats is unanimous.

The infrastructure bill and Build Back Better Framework both carry implications for the 2023 farm bill, as they direct funding to programs that are usually funded through the farm bill, the omnibus legislation that Congress revisits every 5-or-so years. The infrastructure bill provides support for forest and ecosystem management. The Build Back Better Framework makes climate change adaptation and mitigation a central goal by directing significant funding towards forest managementconservation programs, carbon sequestration, and climate resilience research. Important provisions to watch include:

Infrastructure Bill

  • Wildfire Risk Reduction (section 40803). The bill directs $3.37 billion towards measures such as vegetation treatments, mechanical thinning, and controlled burns. Such measures are important for increasing the resilience of forests to wildfires and other threats, which have become increasingly common, as a result of climate change. This funding is consistent with the goals of Title VIII of the 2018 Farm Bill, which was dedicated to forestry and forest management, including provisions for wildfire mitigation and authorization of appropriations for hazardous fuel reduction.
  • Ecosystem Restoration (section 40804). The bill allocates $2.13 billion to the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service for efforts to restore the ecological health of Federal lands and waters, as well as private lands. The section includes a provision directing the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the Interior to establish a ranking system based on priority of ecological restoration for areas at risk of “unnaturally severe wildfire or insect or disease infestation.” The section also directs money to a number of conservation practices such as restoring ecosystem health, national revegetation efforts on Federal and non-Federal land, and a landscape-scale restoration program. Together, these various provisions give direction and financial support to ecosystem resilience and management, an important conservation goal of the farm bill.

Build Back Better (Budget Reconciliation)

  • Agricultural Conservation Investments (section 15002 and 15003). These sections would provide $9 billion for EQIP and $4.1 billion for CSP (EQIP and CSP are both working lands programs that provide technical and financial assistance to agricultural producers to implement conservation measures on their land), $1.7 billion for USDA conservation easements (ACEP), and $200 million to provide conservation technical assistance. If passed, this would be “the biggest investment in conservation programs since the Dust Bowl,” and would help the agricultural community adopt climate-smart practices. These investments will not only help agricultural producers mitigate the impacts of climate change, but also decrease their own contributions to the climate crisis.
  • Forest Restoration and Conservation and Fuels Reduction Projects (section 11001-11004). The bill would invest billions of dollars into projects for vegetation management, hazardous fuels reduction, and forest research. These projects are intended to increase forest resilience and investigate climate change-related changes to forests. The bill also includes funding for payments to private forest landowners to increase carbon sequestration on their land. Funding directed to the Forest Legacy Program promotes forest conservation, which has benefits for carbon sequestration and climate resilience. The provisions further advance the forest management and conservation goals of the farm bill’s Forestry Title by funding these measures that respond to climate change.
  • Climate Change Adaptation (sections 15003, 70101, 70102, and 71502). $50 million is proposed to be directed to the USDA for regional climate hubs to research and assist with climate change adaptation. Millions of dollars in funding is also directed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, and USGS to help conduct research and provide information on climate resilience. Climate hubs under the USDA have been used to provide regional expertise to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners on how to adapt to climate change. The additional funding provided by Build Back Better can help advance similar initiatives.

Together, the infrastructure bill and Build Back Better contain important investments for conservation and climate change adaptation and mitigation. This lays a strong foundation for the anticipated 2023 farm bill to think about how to direct this additional funding and how to fill in any remaining gaps.

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