President Donald Trump signed the farm bill into law this week, officially legalizing hemp and creating programs and funds for drought and forest management.
The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, known as the farm bill, included forestry and drought legislation, which both had several provisions written by Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Bennet’s provisions created the Water Source Protection Program to support partnerships between the Forest Service and water users, increased funding for drought mitigation and forest restoration projects, and allowed communities to lease unused Forest Service facilities as housing.
Bennet, who sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, spoke on the Senate floor last week in support of the bill. He said that when he joined the committee he did not know how difficult the industry was for farmers and ranchers.
“Today, our farmers and ranchers are facing tremendous uncertainty. They’ve got persistent drought and threats of wildfire, which are going to get worse due to climate change,” he said.
Bennet said the bill provides new resources for farmers, ranchers and others in the industry to adapt to climate change-related issues, such as soil health and drought.
“The bill ... increases funding for conservation easements and makes it easier for people to secure them,” Bennet said. “It invests in America’s farm economy to drive innovation in agriculture to keep up our competitiveness in the 21st century. It doubles funding to help communities in places like my state to deal with forest health and protect our watersheds better.”
Bennet included provisions that will add more resources for drought resilience through expanding eligibility for and access to water conservation funding and will add $50 million in funding for off-farm water infrastructure projects, a provision that the Colorado River Project, a public water planning and policy agency, discussed with Bennet.
Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River District, thanked Bennet and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., for their commitment to farmers and ranchers.
“The critical drought resiliency provisions included in this bill will help to ensure Colorado’s farmers and ranchers can adapt to a changing climate while continuing to provide food and fiber to the nation,” Mueller said in a news release.
According to the Drought Monitor, produced by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Southwest Colorado has experienced exceptional drought status since April of this year.
In addition to drought prevention and resilience provisions, Bennet emphasized forest and watershed health through creating the Water Source Protection Program to foster forest health partnerships between the Forest Service and water users like farmers and ranchers. This provision also allows the Forest Service to evaluate the health of forested watersheds, prioritize restoration and monitor the effectiveness or restoration efforts.
The farm bill will reauthorize the National Forest Foundation and double funding for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in an effort to improve forest health and reduce wildfire risk after Colorado experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons this year, including the 416 Fire.
For some who may have lost home in the fires, a Bennet-led provision will establish affordable housing in unused Forest Service buildings. Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson worked with Bennet on the language in the bill.
“This is an important new tool for Summit County and other communities in Colorado that are struggling to create affordable housing,” Davidson said. “It will open up new opportunities for housing projects in places that have Forest Service administrative sites, and the projects will take place in partnership with local community leaders.”
Because the bill federally legalized hemp, the funding for drought resilience and access to federal water would now be open to hemp farmers, which they had previously been denied.
Emily Martin is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.