Scott Pruitt's narcissistic reign as EPA Administrator consumed advocates' collective energies, and rightfully so. It was a drama that recently ended – not via Trump tweet, but by old-fashioned resignation. Alas, this victory's potential downside is that the new guy at EPA, Andrew Wheeler, may be more effective at dismantling environmental protections than Pruitt was because Wheeler actually understands how bureaucracy works.
Then, of course, came the orchestrated events surrounding Justice Kennedy's retirement and President Trump's pick to fill the vacancy, thrusting Brett Kavanaugh to center stage. Environmental protection (among other issues) seems imperiled as the Court is poised to take a hard "right" turn if Kavanaugh is confirmed.
But as we continue to keep a vigilant eye on EPA and the future trajectory of the Supreme Court, let's not forget weighty environmental legislation currently making its way through Congress: the 2018 Farm Bill.
Yes, you read that correctly: The Farm Bill is environmental legislation.
Knowledgeable observers have been surprised by how far the new Farm Bill has progressed this year. Conventional wisdom, based upon the last (2014) Farm Bill experience and the initial, spectacular failure of the House to pass its version of the bill this spring, seemed to point to a protracted legislative process. But, within a week of each other in late June, the House and Senate passed strikingly different versions of the legislation.
The next step is the conference committee process, with which the House recently voted to proceed, where both chambers of Congress will try to reconcile policy differences. Given the gulf between the two bills, it's likely that key battles will be fought over important environmental policy matters.
Here's what's at stake:
Although most Americans live in urban areas, the United States remains a rural nation – around 97 percent of our country is considered rural and contains less than 20 percent of the population. "Working lands," a term used by the USDA, include private forest land, cropland, pasture, and range land and make up the majority of this rural landscape. This pie chart based on USDA Economic Research Service data is illustrative.
Because of the immense amount of land mass devoted to these working landscapes, rural America is the linchpin of a sustainable America. Most of us do not fully appreciate this reality because we are an urban-centric nation. Not unrelatedly, our national policies have contributed in large part to the decline of rural America, favoring agricultural consolidation and urbanization in the name of progress.
Indeed, our neglect of rural economic and environmental health is significant for more reasons than the outcome of presidential elections. We need the ecosystem services that rural America provides for our collective survival. When these services are functioning well, they provide clean water, clean air, climate change mitigation, and wildlife habitat, as well as sustenance.
Unfortunately, these systems are severely compromised. For example, most of our major waterways are crippled by nonpoint source pollution – mainly from agricultural run-off. In addition, water scarcity in the West is accelerating due to climate change and increased demand, the majority of which comes from agriculture. Over 4.6 tons of soil erode per acre annually from cropland despite a national policy of soil conservation. Forests are increasingly stressed by extreme weather and pathogens, contributing to the rise of catastrophic forest fires.
The Farm Bill is critical to our environment because it is our single largest conservation investment in rural America – both in terms of the conservation dollars it provides and baseline conservation it requires.
Broadly, the Senate version of the bill, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, is a far better deal for Americans than the House version, called the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018. Here are some key differences in environmental and conservation policies between the House and the Senate that merit our attention during the conference process:
Environmental advocates have a lot on their plate, what with Kavanaugh's upcoming confirmation battle and the transition at EPA, to say nothing of the Trump administration's ongoing assault on various environmental protections. But it'd be a mistake to overlook the environmental implications of the Farm Bill. If the House version makes it into law, it'll set back the environmental cause mightily.