Landowners’ Eye on the Capital with Zach Bodhane
In this episode, we take you to Washington, D.C., for a conversation with Zach Bodhane, Western Landowners Alliance’s Policy Director. He discusses the most important issues, bills and regulations that WLA is working on on behalf of landowners with Louis Wertz, WLA’s Communications Director.
In this first audio edition of the series, Zach shares the key pieces of legislation that became law in the 117th Congress and what they mean for Western Landowners, specifically the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and federal budget. Riders to the budget, also known as the Omnibus, that Zach discusses include the Growing Climate Solutions Act and the SUSTAINS Act, both of which WLA supported and had bipartisan support. Zach shares how he is keeping close tabs on how all that federal money is spent now, to ensure that the funds make it to the ground in the West as promised.
Then Zach looks ahead to the 118th Congress and the 800 lb gorilla in the room, the farm bill. He’s optimistic a full five-year farm bill renewal will be passed this year, and shares what specific provisions and titles (or sections) of the farm bill he’s in most constant contact with hill staffers about.
Finally, we turned to the regulatory side of town, where agency staff are busy reworking some important rules and regulations that could have big impacts on Western landowners, namely BLM grazing policy, potential shifts in how the US Fish and Wildlife Service implements parts of the Endangered Species Act, and what the Bureau of Reclamation is trying to do about the crisis on the Colorado River.
Landowners’ Eye on the Capital with Zach Bodhane
Louis Wertz [00:00:06] Hey, listeners. Today we’re bringing you a new feature of the On Land podcast that we call Landowners on the Capital. I’m Louis Wertz, WLA’s communications director and On Land editor-in-chief. And for each Landowners’ Eye on the Capital, I’ll be talking with policy director Zach Bodhane.
Zach is literally WLA’s eyes on the capital. As you’ll hear, he lives right in the heart of it. With some subtle prompting for me, Zach will share the latest on the most important issues, bills, and regulations that WLA is working on for landowners. We offer Zach’s insight regularly to members via email as well, and I encourage you to find out more about membership in the show notes. Now, Zach and I.
Hello. Welcome to the first audio Landowners Eye on the Capital. Our quarterly look inside the Beltway with our actual eyes on the capital, WLA’s policy director Zach Bodhane. Hey, Zach.
Zach Bodhane [00:01:05] Hey Louis, how’s it going?
Louis Wertz [00:01:07] Pretty good. How’s it going in Washington, D.C., today?
Zach Bodhane [00:01:09] It is good. We’re recording the day after the State of the Union. There’s still a buzz in the air. Perhaps a little bit more literally than I would have expected, as there was some military aircraft hovering over our house for an extended period of time yesterday. So it’s an exciting time.
Louis Wertz [00:01:27] Oh, man, you’re right in the center of the action. All right. Well, let’s get to it. Landowners eyeing the capital is all about giving our members a look at what you’re seeing and doing on their behalf in D.C. every day. Where should we start?
Review 117th Congress
Zach Bodhane [00:01:40] Yeah, I think. Let’s maybe take a look back first before we look forward and take a look at the previous Congress.
Louis Wertz [00:01:46] Sounds great. So, yeah, we’ve got a New Year, new Congress following the midterms. But before we jump right in there, let’s go back and look at what did become law and start there in 2022.
Zach Bodhane [00:02:02] Sure. So the previous Congress, you know, there was quite a bit of action and some major legislative packages. So the ones that some folks might be aware of were the first, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, otherwise called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Among the kind of sprawling package, some of the stuff that we were looking at was a pot of money going towards the Department of Interior for ecosystem restoration. I think all said and done, that’ll end up being about $1.4 billion over a number of years on the forestry side to USDA, there is probably about $3 billion. And again, there are some of these little pots that do different things here and there, but all said and done kind of wrap it up at a high level.
There’s forestry money going to USDA along those lines that are going to handle wildfire risk reduction along with ecosystem restoration. Next, the major package would be the Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed on a partisan line through the reconciliation process. So through that, some of the major stuff to be aware of and that we’ve been watching for the $20 billion that is going to be USDA for a suite of farm bill conservation programs. So what kind of already exists in terms of the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQUIP, things that folks might be familiar with. USDA is getting an additional $20 billion again over the next decade or so to supplement funding on top of those. How that all fits in the next farm bill is a little up in the air still terms of how that funding may or may not roll in. So that’s something we’re watching. But again, a know exciting development there, but something we’re closely watching.
On top of that, there was another $4 billion that went through that package to the Colorado River Basin, and that is through the Bureau of Reclamation. And that is for the purpose of addressing some of the drought crisis going on in the basin, some of which has already been allocated toward some funding pots that I’ll discuss a little bit later. Some of it has yet to be seen how it’s going to be spent. But again, a major, major legislative package that we’re keeping a close eye on.
And then finally, if that wasn’t enough to close the year out, there was a budget bill on top of those supplementary spending packages. So that’s what’s called an omnibus. It’s essentially just a government funding bill. And when you put it all in one, you got an omnibus. So that move forward at the end of last year to avert a potential shutdown. And again, it’s a pretty sprawling package, but stuff that we were interested in watching included some funding toward the Fish and Wildlife Service to help landowners better enroll in regulatory assurance agreements. So in other words, if you’re conserving wildlife, doing the right thing, conserving certain endangered species that may be listed under the ESA already or might be in the future, making sure that you’re not penalized for that. So there is some funding coming through the service to help move those agreements forward in a more dedicated way. So we’re excited about that.
There’s also on top of some of that funding aside, there were a few standalone legislative packages that ended up getting tacked on to the omnibus, with one being the growing Climate Solutions Act, which is not going to create a carbon credit bank at USDA by any means, but it’s more kind of setting the stage for creating more clarity to producers and providing more technical assistance around how they can engage in some of these carbon markets. So basically, just trying to create a kind of more dedicated focus within the agency on how they can assist in verifying who is something they can work with, and what some of the standards are around these markets. And that’s, I should mention, was very bipartisan, has been something that moved pretty quickly to the Senate, stalled a bit in the House, but has a lot of bipartisan support. I think kind of due to that combination of voluntary side, but also the, you know, slightly more clarified government role. And then finally, the Sustains Act, which again was another bipartisan right along on the omnibus that would essentially allow for a certain pot of money at USDA to be created that would facilitate more public-private partnership in the administration of farm bill programs. So where there’s kind of an interest on something that’s the focus that could be accomplished is programs private money can come in now.
Louis Wertz [00:06:42] Oh, that’s excellent. Okay. So I imagine that Congress, lots of things became law and we’re probably paying close attention now. So much money was appropriated last year. We’re paying close attention now to how those bills are actually being implemented and that funding gets distributed.
What Did Become Law
Zach Bodhane [00:07:02] Yep, and that’s that is where the devil is going to be in the details on all this, is how the agencies can actually spend that money. So we’re doing our best to ensure that landowners come out on top, and are able to access these funds and that these moneys are used toward what they were originally intended and ultimately can land back out West.
Louis Wertz [00:07:20] Awesome. So what is what stalled out in the last Congress that we’ve been working on or we’re tracking and landowners should keep an eye on?
What Didn’t Become Law
Zach Bodhane [00:07:33] Sure, so two to pieces there. One would be the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would have allocated, I forget the top line number, but a fairly large sum over a period of time toward state fish and wildlife agencies. So it would basically supplement what comes in through Pittman, Robertson, Dingle Johnson dollars, which are coming off hunting tag sales, firearms, excise taxes, those sorts of things. It would supplement that kind of a dedicated pot of government money to go toward non-game species conservation. So it’s been along with some listed species conservation as well, but it’s been many years in the making. I think many people thought it was going to move this year. Kind of seemed like it had possibly its moment in the sun. Ultimately, things stalled a little bit, I think perhaps due to a bit of spending fatigue due to some of the other packages I mentioned. And then also there wasn’t really a clear pay for, as it were. So there was new spending that wasn’t offset otherwise, and couldn’t quite find resolution there. So I think that ultimately sank it. But we’ll be keeping an eye out for it in the next Congress.
And then quickly on permitting reform. I mentioned the Inflation Reduction Act earlier, which was the reconciliation partisan package that went out as a condition of Senator Manchin from West Virginia, ultimately supporting that. There’s kind of a negotiation made that he has a kind of standalone permitting reform bill that would mostly focus on energy permitting but could have some NEPA implications down the line that would be considered at some point in the future. So I think a lot of people were looking at the omnibus budget spending bill as sort of a likely place for that to get tacked on to. It didn’t ultimately happen. So now we’re keeping an eye out for, you know, however, that may materialize this year.
Louis Wertz [00:09:34] Yeah, sounds good. So that was last year. And a little bit of what we’re looking forward to. But tell us a little bit more specifically about how are we going to preview what do you think is going to happen in the 118th Congress. We know the party in charge of the House of Representatives changed through the midterm elections. So how is that going to impact what we’re looking at?
Zach Bodhane [00:09:56] Sure. So it’s yeah, it’s it the house did flip, and it’s in Republican control now. So you have a divided Congress with a Democratic-run Senate with a Republican-run House, and Democrat in the White House. So I think due to the margin in the House being what it is, which is pretty narrow, it’s going to necessitate a fair amount of bipartisanship and a fair amount of compromise. It also might mean that a lot of these kind of standalone packages might not move in any meaningful way. There’s probably going to be if I had to guess less action than last Congress. But what does move will probably need to be a little bit more compromise-focused and a little bit more bipartisan.
So with that in mind, it is a farm bill year. So the 2018 farm bill that was signed into law is now up to be reauthorized and will expire in September of this year. So the farm bill has traditionally been a very bipartisan piece of legislation. There’s been committee staff and members of those committees saying that they want this bill to be even more bipartisan than the last. So there’s a lot of good signals coming out there. I think, you know, realistically, there’s some questions around how the Inflation Reduction Act money actually influences this next farm bill. And I think that’s something that the committees are still working out a bit. But, you know, the folks on the committees are saying that they want to have a farm bill in ’23, which is a great sign that committee staff are starting to work toward that. There’s some [are disappearing starting] on the Senate side. So everything’s moving there. You know, there’s, of course, a chance that it doesn’t move this year and that there needs to be a short-term reauthorization pushed into 2024. But at the moment, all signs are pointing toward business as usual to the extent that exists in Congress these days. And then otherwise, we are kind of eagerly looking toward this next appropriation cycle and are just watching a few things there. I think in particular with wolf reintroduction in Colorado and conflict reduction as a top-of-mind issue for many folks, we’re eager to see what federal support might be coming out for to supplement both state depredation compensation programs, but also, you know, otherwise more broadly support nonlethal work prevention work through Fish and Wildlife Service, Wildlife Services and otherwise.
So watching that and working on it in this next cycle, and are hopeful there and in terms of a timeline for appropriations. So, you know, you may have heard me talk about the 17th, 117th Congress omnibus was kind of the last big thing that moved. And so we’re very much in a get stuff in front of the committees now mode and engage them early on because you’ll start to see bills coming out of the committees in the next couple of months or so. Then things get really quiet throughout the summer and then suddenly, as the budget is set to expire come fall, things get very fast again.
Louis Wertz [00:12:59] Deadlines. Such a motivating factor. I want to go back to the farm bill for just a second and help people understand just a little bit about what it would mean if we were in a reauthorization, like a temporary or short-term reauthorization versus a new five-year farm bill. Like what’s the trade-off there, what are we’re looking at?
Zach Bodhane [00:13:18] Sure. So, say the farm bill were to not be reauthorized this year, but was temporarily reauthorized and punted until 2024. That essentially means that the current farm bill that exists is just extended for one year. So there wouldn’t be any meaningful changes in terms of authorizing language; there wouldn’t be new programs, for example, there wouldn’t be a lot of new spending levels. There might be some little tweaks here or there, but really it’s business as usual as it has been in terms of farm bill, statutory language at USDA implementation punted one year down the line to give Congress a bit more time to figure something out.
Louis Wertz [00:14:01] Okay, so from like the local USDA staff level, it’s another year of sort of implementing the same things. No changes which can be good or bad, depending on how those things are going in local areas? Okay.
Zach Bodhane [00:14:18] Right. With the one caveat there being all the new money coming in from Inflation Reduction Act stacked on top of those existing programs. So that’s kind of the new implementation challenge. But in terms of like what has been authorized in the farm bill and what the programs do and don’t do, that’s not changing if there is a short-term authorization.
Louis Wertz [00:14:37] And at USDA, leadership levels, in terms of the signals they’re giving off that l we need a full farm bill reauthorization, we’re handling that money from the IRA just fine, it’s not going to complicate things to add or change new program or to have new like a new five-year farm bill.
Zach Bodhane [00:14:59] I think most of the signals coming down and this has been bipartisan from what I’ve heard, both in Congress in terms of the administration folks, they’re in a little bit of a different spot because they’re not the ones writing the bill. They’re the ones implementing it. But most of the signals that I’ve heard, if not all, are that people want to get the farm bill done. And they see that regardless of the challenges in the short time frame, you know, a punt on the farm bill could be ultimately more challenging. So I think people are motivated to get it done; whether or not there’s enough time on the clock to actually do that is the bigger question.
Louis Wertz [00:15:34] Okay, great. Thanks Zach. And then I know that, and we’ve just touched on this a little bit that a lot of the policymaking that you’re influencing and that we’re tracking is actually happening outside of Congress with the implementation of statutes and the rulemaking process within federal agencies. What is standing out is particularly pressing there now. What are you working on keeping your eye on?
Zach Bodhane [00:15:55] Sure. So this, I think, is going to be a big year when it comes to rulemakings coming from federal agencies there. It’s been a bit quiet on that front, to be honest, for the past couple of years. And I think that’s due to, you know, a new administration, new agency heads coming in. Them trying to get a handle on what their agenda is going to be. And then at the same time, some of these large things going on in Congress with reconciliation or otherwise. So this year, I would imagine, is a big one.
In terms of what we’re watching. There’s already it was just actually announced today there’s a new Endangered Species Act rule which just came out that is seeking to simplify the process for landowners to enroll in voluntary conservation assurance agreements. So candidate conservation agreements, safe harbor agreements. This rule actually proposes to merge both of those into just one kind of simplified agreement. And so we still have to review. It’s still very early, but just as a you know, as an indication of what’s to come, there’s already something on the day to be recorded, something pretty substantive about. So there’s more to come on the ESA side. I would almost certain of that.
On the Bureau of Land Management side, they are doing, I think, a massive overhaul of their grazing rules. So I think the idea is that there’s a lot of handbooks stacked on top of handbooks, first and foremost, trying to clean up some of that internally and create a little bit more consistency in how they’re administering the grazing program under the BLM. There’s also going to be you know, there’s I think, some thoughts that they might codify the outcomes-based grazing program through this new rulemaking. Not totally sure on how that’s going to land. But either way, I think it’s it’s going to be something we’re watching and are engaged on right now. There is, I think, you know, the specter of possibility around NEPA, which has kind of started and installed a bit. So we’ll just continue to keep an eye on how any sort of NEPA, NEPA changes may be moving forward. And I will just say, you know, we’re still keeping an eye on the 30 x 30 front for America The Beautiful there is I think it seems like a sense that the atlas is going to come out. The Conservation atlas, which is basically the map of what counts, what doesn’t. Sometime this year, we’re not 100% sure on where that might be. There was thought to might be early this year. I think it’s been pushed back a bit, but nonetheless, they’re staying engaged there and they’re continuing to work with folks there to ensure that landowners’ interest, working lands interests are incorporated and will count in what comes out, hopefully.
Louis Wertz [00:18:33] Mm hmm. I know we talked about that in one of your columns in On Land magazine. The importance of that atlas being shaped and recognizing the contributions of private landowners and just how much that could potentially shape the conversation nationally around conservation. So good to have that on our radar.
One thing I know that is on the minds of policymakers and Western landowners alike is the situation on the Colorado River. And I think maybe it’s helpful just to spend our last little bit together having you explain to people what you’re hearing about that from D.C., what the federal involvement in that situation is, and then what opportunities that might be presenting for Western landowners to gauge water issues.
Zach Bodhane [00:19:17] Sure. Sure. So the latest on the situation there and a bit of back story that the Bureau of Reclamation, for folks who might have been following this closely last year, essentially called for, in a fairly unprecedented move, 2 to 4 million acre-feet of cuts kind of basin-wide to protect those water levels at some of those key reclamation infrastructure points in terms of Lake Mead and otherwise.
So where it’s at now, the states have been given some time to develop plans. A few deadlines have come and gone without much coming forward from the states in terms of substantive cuts. There is a plan just to leverage reclamation that I have not seen yet. I’m not sure if it’s out publicly. But in terms of kind of hearing the details, it’s around possibly 1.5 million acre-feet over the next two years of cuts that six of the seven basin states, so basin states, excluding California, essentially have agreed to, in terms of reducing consumptive use. So I think a lot of that is likely going to be coming from evaporative loss. So kind of accounting for that better or infrastructure improvements along the way. The details remain to be seen, but there is a plan now. Reclamation is kind of way there, I wouldn’t call it an ultimatum, but they’ve they’ve certainly laid out their strong request.
Louis Wertz [00:20:50] I think, yeah, some of the news I’m seeing is that people are wishing it was a little bit, negotiators are wishing it was a little bit more ultimatum-y so that it would force the hand a little bit of these, you know, of folks. Which is it can be can sound very scary but I’m not sure that the difference in terms of what would actually then happen is all that clear to people if there was an ultimatum versus if they’re if they continue not having a plan, essentially.
Zach Bodhane [00:21:21] Yeah. Yeah. And there’s questions that I honestly wouldn’t be able to answer super well about reclamation’s authority to actually manage water resources because most of that authority does reside with the states where reclamation does have authority is where federal infrastructure is implicated. Hence going back to Lake Mead and Lake Powell as kind of the forcing actions on keeping water in those so that they don’t reach that kind of dead pool point where they can no longer generate hydropower, and there’s some structural risk. So I think that’s yeah, that’s kind of the, you know, the forcing action, so to speak, in this. But yeah, we’ll be watching that.
In terms of what landowners need to know about and can be engaged on there was recently announced a system conservation pilot project and pilot is maybe not quite the right word, but that’s just sort of what the acronym is stuck as now. But it was a pilot many years ago, wasn’t authorized for some time, was subsequently reauthorized, and given some funding. So that is now an opportunity that folks in some of the basin states can apply for. It’s open until March 1st. I think things are very open and fluid at the moment, but we have some information on our website that goes into a bit more details. The gist is that they’re looking for somewhat quantifiable consumptive use reductions there in exchange for a set payment rate coming through this program.
And we have contact information, again, more details on the website, and happy to talk through folks with them or connect them with more information if they’re curious.
Louis Wertz [00:23:07] Awesome. Thanks, Zach. Yeah, I do want to make sure that people know the water information on the website. We’re trying to keep that as up-to-date as possible. Check out onland.westernlandowners.org/on-water for more information there. You can find that also just by going to westernlandowners.org.
We’ve got all of our policy work that Zach is leading is encapsulated public document; all of that stuff is available at westernlandowners.org/policy. So if you ever have any questions about the specifics of what we’re putting in the products that Zach is producing in terms of trying to influence this stuff, you can find all of those resources there. It also just occurred to me now that we might want to spend a second just introducing that we have additional policy capacity at the state level now, that is super exciting. And so, want to flag that Jake Loebsack is our new state policy coordinator. Maybe Zach, tell people just briefly what broadly Jake will be working on and what they can expect to hear from him at the state level?
Zach Bodhane [00:24:17] Yeah, sure. We’re super excited to have Jake on board to take on some more state-level work. So at the moment, there are a bunch of legislative sessions occurring throughout many, if not most, Western states. Jake is going to help us this year, just make sure that our priorities and landowners’ priorities are advancing through that and keeping an eye out for anything that could be detrimental.
So he’s tracking a bunch of the statehouse across the West now and in the future, I think we’ll be helping bring some new, dedicated focus to state-level policy along some of the same lines of issues that we’re talking here, whether it’s water conservation, landowners opportunities to generate income through hunting, tax sales or recreation access, those sorts of things, conservation, trust funds, funding. Otherwise, there’s many issues, but Jake will be diving into all that west-wide. Folks can look forward to hearing from him, whether it’s talking with you like this Louis, or in a newsletter soon, just given his kind of bird’s eye view of what’s going on, in the state houses.
Louis Wertz [00:25:21] Awesome. Thanks, Zach. Yeah, just one last flag to keep an eye out for emails from Jake and Zach. Things are moving quickly. We’re in session in the state houses. Congress is convening. So, you know, if you want to stay up to date, make sure you’re opening emails from Jake and Zach, and westernlandowners.org, and thanks so much for listening.
Zach Bodhane [00:25:44] Cool. Thanks everyone.
Louis Wertz [00:25:52] I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Zach Bodhane for this, our first podcast version, Landowners’ Eye on the Capital.
If you appreciate the format of these updates and the information Zach provided, we’d love to hear from you. If there are things you’d like us to cover in future installments, let us know that too. Find contact, information, links, and more in the show notes.
Thanks, Zach, for being game for this experiment with me. And thank you to you, our listeners and supporters, for all you do for the West. We’ll talk to you next time on the On Land podcast.
State of the Union 2023 https://www.whitehouse.gov/state-of-the-union-2023/
Inflation Reduction Act https://www.irs.gov/inflation-reduction-act-of-2022
Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3684/text
2023 System Conservation Pilot Program https://onland.westernlandowners.org/2023/on-water/what-landowners-need-to-know-about-the-2023-system-conservation-pilot-program/
WLA Policy Updates westernlandowners.org/policy