Guestworker Visa Reform
This week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the first half allotment of H-2B visas for FY 2019 have already been used up in the first quarter, a development which underscores the urgent need to fix the guestworker visa program. To that end, language is in play as part of the year end government funding negotiations to double the cap on H-2B visas and allow forestry workers eligibility under the H-2A program. Thanks to all of you who have reached out to your Member of Congress urging enactment of these critical reforms. As you know, Congress and the Administration are in the midst of a standoff regarding funding the government past December 21. The situation is fluid, but we continue to communicate with Congressional leadership and the Administration about the urgency of the guestworker visa situation and the need to enact guestworker reform this year.
If you have not already done so, it is important that you contact your House and Senate members, and request they make a personal contact with party leadership and support the inclusion of the Tillis/Harris H-2B package in the FY2019 government spending bill. FRA has set up an action alert that will assist you in contacting your House and Senate members. To access the action alert, CLICK HERE. To review the FRA one pager on this issue please CLICK HERE.
A final Farm Bill conference report was released late Monday evening and subsequently passed by the Senate and the House this week. As we have reported in previous updates, there were several positive provisions in play in both the House and Senate versions, many of which were included in the final compromise. A few highlights include:
- Timber Innovation Act (TIA): The stronger Senate version of TIA was included in the final package. Both the research and development provisions as well as the Wood Innovation Grant language were agreed to by conference committee negotiators. FRA has been supporting the TIA as it promotes use of wood in taller structures, generally buildings higher than six stories. This provision was opposed by organizations representing the concrete and steel industries and so its passage through Congress is a considerable victory for FRA and the rest of the forestry and forest products sector.
- Biomass Energy: The final conference report includes a number of provisions promoting use of sawmill-derived fuels for heat and power. Primary among them is the Community Wood Energy and Wood Innovation program, which is authorized at $25 million a year over the life of the new Farm Bill to deploy high efficient biomass heating and biomass heat and power systems across the country. The provision also allows innovative wood product facilities—including sawmills and pellet plants--to apply for grants under the program. Also included in the final Farm Bill is a reauthorization of the Biomass Program for Advanced Biofuels which provides mandatory money to producers of advanced biofuel, the definition of which specifically includes wood pellets. That program will receive $7 million in mandatory funding per year.
- Forestry: The final agreement includes a number of forestry related provisions. On the federal forestry front, the bill expands the use of Good Neighbor Authority to tribes and counties and requires non-Federal partners to undertake “similar or complimentary” restoration activities on non-Federal lands. There is also a directive in the final conference report that calls upon the Department of Interior and USDA to prepare a report detailing how much timber is being harvested on federal lands and what is being done to prevent forest fires, among other items. FRA had been advocating for additional authorities for the Forest Service to help manage the federal forest landscape, but there was not sufficient support in the Senate to include them in the final deal. Notable on the private forestry side is language directing the US Forest Service to find efficiencies in the operations of the forest inventory and analysis program through improved use of remote sensing technologies, and to partner with states and stakeholders to carry out the program.
Overall, FRA is pleased with the final Farm Bill product as it supports the many links in the wood products value chain. President Trump is expected to sign the measure.
Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS)Also this week, the Administration proposed a new WOTUS rule. The proposal seeks to clarify which waters are covered under the federal Clean Water Act. Recall that the issue of what is and what is not a “water of the U.S.” has been a hotly contested issue for many years, pitting landowners and states’ rights advocates against environmental groups and organizations favoring a more command and control approach to water quality regulation. Under the Agency’s proposal, traditional navigable waters, tributaries to those waters, certain ditches, certain lakes and ponds, impoundments of jurisdictional waters, and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters would be federally regulated. It also details what are not “waters of the United States,” such as features that only contain water during or in response to rainfall (e.g., ephemeral features); groundwater; many ditches, including most roadside or farm ditches; prior converted cropland; stormwater control features; and waste treatment systems. For forestry, clarity around ephemeral streams should narrow the types of waters regulated on forestlands. And importantly, this proposal is a first draft for which EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers will be soliciting comment. A 90 day public comment period will commence as soon as the proposal is published in the Federal Register. FRA will be submitting comments on the proposal.