The potential for a final Farm Bill in Congress is real, and could not be more necessary for our forests.

These woodlands after all are vital to all Americans, providing core habitat needed for thousands of wildlife species, clean air and supporting local economies and more than 2.4 million rural jobs. And particularly important in recent times – they help filter and provide clean water that flows to the faucets of citizens, and provides farmers and ranchers a vital resource for agriculture and livestock.

Our forest challenges, however, continue to intensify – landowners are facing drought conditions across the country. Another horrific wildfire season has dominated our western landscape from Oregon to New Mexico this summer. And the spread of insects and disease is running rampant across the U.S.

Too many believe that our forest challenges are solely a federal problem. Public lands represent a mere 28 percent of our forests. In fact, families and individuals manage the largest portion of our forests across rural America. What’s more, forest ownerships create a checkerboard pattern from east to west, with public and private lands being intermixed together. Clean water and the other resources we count on, require entire healthy forested ecosystems, not just a single parcel or ownership type to be successful. And, while we may understand boundary lines, wildfires, insects and all the other forest issues do not. 

Truly tackling these challenges and creating stronger, more resilient forests is going to require more than one ownership, and collaborative solutions from lawmakers – it requires an all hands, all lands strategy. We need leaders who champion shared stewardship, and the corresponding policies and programs that encourage partnership and cross-boundary efforts among all forest owners.

Thankfully, strong forestry champions are putting strategies in place to tackle these issues head on. Secretary Perdue just released the Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes report, outlining several strategies that take a shared stewardship approach to reduce the impact of fires in the future.

Shortly thereafter came the appointment of Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment James Hubbard – an individual who embodies collaboration – having helped create cross-boundary, all lands approach programs such as the Good Neighbor Authority.

Now, Congress has an opportunity to expand on these efforts and pass a 2018 Farm Bill that could bolster forests for the future.

As conference committee representatives from the House and Senate work to finalize a 2018 Farm Bill, we hope they will fight to include a number of potential policies and programs that support family forest owners and complement the work on public land, so that we can get ahead of our cross-boundary forest issues.

First, we need to strengthen the Forest Service’s Landscape Scale Restoration program and increase cross-boundary cooperative work in the Hazardous Fuels program. These programs would make more effective use of federal and non-federal resources by focusing on projects that deliver the greatest impact on region-wide priorities, encouraging work on family lands and neighboring federal lands.

Second, support programs and funding that encourage a strong, diverse forest products industry. One of the major factors in landowners struggling to keep their woods healthy, create habitat and prevent wildfires – is the decline in markets.  Without markets, outlets for woody debris, and low-grade wood material are nonexistent. On top of this, costs to remove any unneeded material becomes outlandish. Combined, these factors cause forest owners to often leave their land unmanaged and vulnerable.  Support and investment in programs such the Community Wood Energy Program and the Timber Innovation Act can bolster timber markets, reducing treatment costs and making use of the low-grade wood material.

Last, the 2018 Farm Bill, as we’ve seen in past iterations, needs to continue to support strong funding for forest owners in the forestry and conservation programs. Programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program provide enormous public benefit by enabling families to conduct needed management. Funding levels should remain intact if we are to include family forest owners in cross-boundary collaborative efforts.

With our ever-growing forest challenges, it is critical we work together to protect the future of our forests. We hope Congress will take advantage of this opportunity to pass a strong Farm Bill and complement the other activities in place to allow our forests to continue to provide the resources on which all Americans rely.

About the Author: Tom Martin is the president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation