Updated on March 4, 2013
Congress’ sequestration deadline is 11:59 tonight. With so much disagreement, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to whether lawmakers will be able to come to an agreement on how to cut spending by the mandated $85 billion for this fiscal year.
What’s the on-the-ground impact for forest owners?
While agencies are still figuring out exactly what the impact will be, we do know that sequestration will mean across the board cuts to every program not already exempted by Congress. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack considers sequestration, “a direct prescription from Congress to reduce every line item by the same percentage.”
What are some priority “line items” for forest owners? USFS Forest Stewardship Program, USFS Forest Health Management Program, USFS Forest Inventory & Analysis, APHIS Tree & Wood Pests Program, Farm Bill Conservation Programs, and much more.
Non-defense programs face a 5 percent overall spending cut, but because the first year’s cuts will be made half-way through the current fiscal year, it will feel more like a 9 percent spending cut. In USDA, both the Food Stamp and Conservation Reserve Programs are exempt from these spending cuts.
So what do these cuts mean, practically speaking?
- Secretary Vilsack has admitted that programs with minimal line items may have to implement employee furlough programs; in particular, Farm Service Agency employees could be effected and landowners will have reduced access to their technical, on-the-ground expertise.
- Funding for conservation programs will decrease, meaning approximately 11,000 fewer landowners will receive technical assistance and tools needed to implement conservation practices on the ground.
- The Forest Service will have to decide to either focus their Forest Health dollars on fewer invasive pests or significantly reduce the program efforts for the entire suite of pests they are fighting now—neither option of which get the job done effectively or efficiently.
- Funding cuts for the APHIS Tree & Wood Pests Program would decrease quarantine and rapid response programs—meaning damaging bugs and diseases would spread across the country much more quickly.
- Reductions in the Forest Stewardship Program would mean fewer state service forester resources, or less boots-on-the ground expertise that many family forest owners have come to rely on.
- Finally, a reduction in the Forest Service Wildland Fire Management program means increased risk to communities and forested acres, with as many as 200,000 fewer acres treated for hazardous fuels reduction.
Although it’s important to get our fiscal house in order, many agency officials are concerned that these blanket, across-the-board spending cuts don’t allow them the flexibility to make the smartest budgetary decisions.
They feel better solutions involve streamlining or consolidating programs, restructuring efforts, or increasing inter-agency collaboration—but sequestration doesn’t give them the freedom to make these changes and decreases the effectiveness of many of these programs’ intent.
Stay tuned as the sequestration negotiations unfold today.