As we begin to focus on what opportunities are ahead in the new year and with the new Congress, FRA would like to take a brief look back over 2018 on the policy front. It was a year with several key issues relevant to the forest products industry coming together and remaining active at the end of the year. From continued guestworker visa reform efforts to ensure there are workers available to plant trees for a stable and sustainable fiber supply, opportunities to grow the industry’s footprint with the passage of the Farm Bill, and the continued focus to address transportation challenges, below are some of the key highlights:
Guestworker reform received a good deal of attention in 2018. In June, the full House took a vote on two separate occasions to move legislation improving access to seasonal workers for forestry work. On both occasions, the House did not pass guestworker reform legislation. Another opportunity presented itself in the Ag Legal Workforce Act (AGLWA). This legislation was an improvement on previous versions voted down earlier in June. FRA and others worked hard to get House Members to sign-on to the bill. These efforts were successful in securing 112 co-sponsors of the legislation; however, House leadership was not certain that the bill had enough support and decided not to bring it to the floor.
Currently, FRA is working to include guestworker reform in the FY2019 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations. This rider would double the existing seasonal guestworker cap in the H-2B program and allow forestry employers access to the uncapped H-2A guestworker visa program. Unfortunately, FRA’s efforts to pass this reform is caught up in the discussions on border wall funding and the government shutdown. FRA has continued to remain active on this issue during the shutdown by encouraging Congressional members and leadership that any appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland needs to include a fix for the H-2B visa program. The need for a fix is clear, as unprecedented demand for guestworker visas crashed the Department of Labor iCERT system on January 1, 2019 within the first five minutes of opening the semi-annual H-2B certification process.
On January 22, a letter was sent to House and Senate leadership requesting that any agreement ending the partial Government shutdown include a legislative solution to the H-2B guestworker visa program. This letter was signed by nearly 130 Congressional Members.
The President signed the Agriculture Improvement Act (Farm Bill) on December 20, 2018. The Farm Bill forestry title included funding for many forest conservation programs. Also included in the conference language was funding for the Community Wood Energy Program, Timber Innovation Act, and a number of federal forestry related provisions that included extending Categorical Exclusions for hazardous fuels removal and expanding the Good Neighbor Authority to county governments and Native American Tribes.
Soon after the President signed the Farm Bill, it was announced that all 14 of the wood products industry-supported changes that will allow for tall mass timber building construction were approved for inclusion in the 2021 International Building Code (IBC). These changes are the gateway for products like cross-laminated timber (CLT) to be used in taller commercial construction across the nation. The IBC approved changes will allow for tall mass timber construction up to 18 stories.
Transportation received a good deal of attention from the media in 2018, with most of the attention focused on the current and forecasted labor shortages. Initiatives to increase interstate truck weights failed to gain any traction during the year. Several bills were introduced throughout the year that addressed the restrictions causing the truck driver shortage. Two of the bills aimed to lessen the Hours of Service Regulation and one would have allowed 18-year-old drivers to drive across state lines with additional training, the Drive Safe Act (H.R. 5358).
FRA is currently reevaluating our strategy to increase interstate weights for movement of logs to mills. In December, we met with the American Trucking Association policy leadership to discuss opportunities for increased interstate gross vehicle weight (GVW) for hauling logs from the woods to the mill. We left this meeting with new thoughts and ideas. Look for a revised transportation strategy in 2019.
In 2018, the Trump Administration addressed several regulatory issues that are important to FRA membership. Most recently, EPA issued a proposed rule that would replace the Obama-era “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule. A 90-day comment period will follow publication of the WOTUS rule. In July, the Administration also proposed several amendments to the ESA. The proposed changes would adjust some long-standing rules and revisit changes made by the Obama administration. FRA anticipates the final ESA changes to be published in the coming months. The EPA additionally proposed the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) Rule, a measure that seeks to replace the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan. The ACE rule provides more flexibility for states in determining emission limits for affected electric utilities. The rule recognizes forest-based derived biomass as a compliance option. We anticipate the final ACE rule to be published during the first quarter of 2019.
FRA continues to follow the development of the Lake States Region Bat Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). FRA has been actively working with state DNRs to develop reasonable take and conservation measures in the HCP, and we anticipate a final HCP in early 2020.
FRA has worked with allied associations and the Forest Service to keep timber sales active during the government shutdown. The USDA Secretary has approved the use of prior years’ dollars to keep active timber sales operating on Forest Service lands. This funding is critical to avoid change in status or suspension of active timber sales and costs associated with those actions. The Forest Service additionally will have the authority to advertise and award sales during the shutdown.Thank you for your support this past year! We look forward to working together to strengthen our advocacy efforts and champion FRA priorities in 2019.