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Sen. Thune on his 2023 farm bill priorities

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

Over his political career, U.S. Sen. John Thune has worked on five farm bills. He stops by the SDPB studio to dive into the latest proposed bill, the 2023 farm bill.

Climate change is the most pressing issue in its new iteration. Sen. Thune discusses how the bill could empower the farming industry to reward environmental consciousness and protect farmers against climate disasters.

Plus, he talks about his priorities related to forestry and mining.

Lori Walsh:
The 2023 farm bill has a lot of ground to cover and a September 30th deadline to get it written.

The USDA reports the ag industry is responsible for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions, which means big opportunities for the industry to fight climate change, but that also might mean a bigger political fight in the policy phase.

Meanwhile, extreme heat events like what we're seeing this week put livestock at risk. Can a new farm bill help producers recover from climate disasters?

And, a Colorado senator is proposing $60 billion to manage and restore America's forests that could impact the Black Hills National Forest and the New Forest Plan, which is also currently under revision.

Well, the 2023 farm bill is, of course, one of U.S. Sen. John Thune's top priorities this session, and he has stopped by our SDPB Kirby Family studio in Sioux Falls for an update.

Sen. Thune, welcome. Thanks for being here.

Sen. John Thune:
Thanks, Lori. Great to be with you.

Lori Walsh:
Let's start with the heat. Extreme heat events like this one and full-out climate disasters are on everybody's mind as this farm bill goes forward.

Are there opportunities, or is that a priority for you to look at the intersection of that in a new farm bill?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I think there's an increasing, obviously, discussion around what in a farm bill can you do to deal with the issue of climate? And I don't know that it's going to get fully engaged in this farm bill, although I think there will be, coming out of this, probably some guidance and direction provided to the Forest Service and USDA, for example, and to farmers generally about carbon storage, sequestration, capture.

Farmers do a great job of that. And the question is, can they be rewarded for it? Can they be compensated for it? And then, should that be a government solution, or should it be a market-driven solution? I think that's at least one of the conversations that's happening around this farm bill.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. Where is the balance for that? Because when you say market-driven, what I'm thinking in my mind is, how much protection is good and healthy and how much it encourages reckless behavior, for example? That would be the criticism.

What do you think about that? What does that bring up for you?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I think, to me, the main, at least, focus, in a farm bill that deals with the issue of climate's conservation title. We, in the past, at least, have provided a number of incentives and tried to add some flexibility for farmers who do put land into CRP, but basically to take land out of production, put it into native grasses. That, obviously, is a good solution too, but I think that next step is, where do you strike that balance? And is there a way in which farmers could participate in some sort of a program that would?

Again, I think it's better if it comes up organically, voluntarily, so to speak, where a value is attached to carbon credits, big companies are looking for credits to buy. If farmers can figure out how to store carbon in the ground and get credits for those because they could get payment for that from these companies that need to reduce their carbon footprint.

The hard part in all that is how do you quantify the value? Nobody, at least yet, I don't think, has come up with a really good approach to that. There are a lot of attempts at it, but I think that's probably at least one of the obstacles is how do you quantify the value? What's your metric on that?

Lori Walsh:
For people who aren't aware, farmers know how to store carbon in the ground through no-till and some of these other best practices.

Sen. John Thune:
Right. And more of them are doing that.

Lori Walsh:
And they're doing it. The question is, how do you value that to make it part of your larger effort? You've worked with Sen. Klobuchar, the Democrat from Minnesota, on some bipartisan legislation in that regard.

Sen. John Thune:

Lori Walsh:
How bipartisan is this and when does it tumble into either through the Progressive Caucus or the Freedom Caucus, or just left and right?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I think at least in the Senate, the House is a tougher — That's one I probably would have a hard time assessing exactly how that comes out over there in terms of the farm bill. But I think in the Senate, at least, the farm bill, historically, has been very bipartisan. The fights that happen in farm bills tend to be more regional.

Here in South Dakota, we raise corn, wheat, soybeans, livestock, and in the South, they raise cotton, rice, peanuts. In California and Michigan, they raise specialty crops. And so, there's always a big fight among the commodities and regions of the country. But the politics of farm bills, at least in this part of the country, and that's why I work a lot with Amy Klobuchar and others from this region, those issues tend to be fairly well-aligned.

Yeah, so we are working on some things and I'm hoping that that foundation will serve us well in terms of getting a bill across the finish line in the Senate.

I think in the Senate, at least the committee, although we haven't scheduled a markup yet, works closely together. So, the Chairman, Stabenow, who's from Michigan, the ranking Republican is John Boozman from Arkansas.

I've been on the committee now for every farm bill we've done in the last few years. This will be my fifth. I've been very involved in. And so, working with both of their staffs trying to incorporate some of our ideas. But I think that, at least if past is prologue and any guide, I think we'll do pretty well in getting a bill, at least out of the committee, hopefully across the Senate floor.

The question is, does the House pass a bill? And can we reconcile the two if it does? Or if it doesn't, can we get them to take up the Senate bill?

Lori Walsh:
This is your fifth farm bill. What would you define as progress? "We've really made progress on this." Start there.

And then I guess some new obstacles that you haven't seen in the previous five is what I would ask you next. But over five farm bills, what would you say, "Hey, we got that right"?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I think that one of the things that have evolved a lot and the cornerstone of the safety net for any farm bill is crop insurance, and crop insurance has had lots of fits and starts through the years. When I first got to Congress, it didn't work at all. Nobody used it. And so, anytime you had a disaster, they would come to Congress and ask for an ad hoc emergency disaster bill. And so, we were writing big checks at the time.

Now, the subsequent farm bills have refined crop insurance in a way that it actually is a very useful tool, workable, in which farmers pay a premium like they would on any insurance, and then obviously part of that is also subsidized, but it's about a 57-43% match. So that program, to me, is now the anchor of our federal farm policy.

And then we've, in subsequent farm bills like the 2014 bill, we created a program called Agricultural Risk Coverage, which complements crop insurance as part of the safety net. And then the Price Loss Coverage Program was created subsequent to that. The disaster programs that basically apply to livestock, which doesn't benefit, at least hasn't in the past in farm bills. The Livestock Indemnity Program, the Livestock Forage Program are both programs we were involved in shaping. And so there's now something out there for livestock producers when we hit these really bad weather cycles or price catastrophes and things like that.

So, those are some things that we've incorporated. But actually, the Agricultural Risk Coverage Program was something that was our program. In the 2018 farm bill, we called the SHIP Program, which was the Soil Health and Improvement Program, SHIP Program. That was designed to create a program that was more effective, in some ways, than the CRP program.

So, if you couldn't put large tracks in, you could take the least producing acreage on your farm, put it in this program voluntarily without the government deciding what the requirements are, and get a reduction in your crop insurance premium, a partial payment for it. And it was a shorter term, three to five years. Now, the take-up rate hasn't been great, but we think it will be. And so, that came out of the 2018 bill.

There's always, in every farm bill, things that we're trying to refine, tweak, make work better, in some cases, come up with new solutions. And I would say every farm bill has had a few of those. This one, we've got several ideas on the conservation title that we've worked on. We've got some proposed changes in the commodity title that would affect both the ARC Program and the PLC Program on reference prices and updates and mandatory base acres.

So when you asked that question, I tell you, you get me going here because there's a lot in each of the title farm bills. The Forestry Title in the 2018 bill and the 2014 bill, both of them had significant forestry. There is a forestry title in the farm bill, interestingly enough. National forests are under USDA, Forest Services are under USDA. And that's kind of a weird thing, jurisdictionally, that's happened in the past.

So we've had some significant changes to a lot of the stewardship programs that affect our national forest and farm bills, too.

Lori Walsh:
You were just in the Black Hills. I was in the Black Hills last week as well and spent a lot of time with Forest Service employees and in the forest with private landowners talking about the timber inventory and mining. You and I have talked about timber extensively in the past.

Now, the USGS, the US Geological Service, is contracted to do this new measurement through LiDAR, aerial LiDAR. So if people don't know, they're going to get a really good look at the inventory here in the next months to years. And there has been some debate about what this inventory is and how many trees can be taken to meet the target of the timber industry.

Multi-use, again, most listeners who are listening to this understand that's really critical to the infrastructure of the forest, but what I heard a lot of was there aren't as many trees left as you might think.

Tell me a little bit about the importance of getting that new data. What are you looking for? What do you want to know about the real inventory in the Black Hills National Forest?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I just think accuracy, as much as possible. Because I think when you going to make decisions about it, the data needs to be as precise as possible, and there are a lot of discrepancies in the Forest Services evaluation relative to the Black Hills Advisory Groups' understanding of and evaluation of what the actual inventory is out there. So I'm hoping, at least, just having good data on which to make decisions.

The harvest this year is going to be significantly down. It was supposed to be 90,000 CCFs. It's going to be significantly, I think, under that, which creates strains on the timber industry out there. But as you point out, there are multiple uses to the Black Hills. Whether you're a logger or a miner or a recreational or a horse rider or a biker or a walker, there are so many people who utilize the Black Hills. You want to make sure that it's a treasure that we maintain, and I think one of the ways you maintain it is through effective management and I think you also reduce the risk of wildfires.

The one thing you don't want to have happen is create so many fuel loads out there that when you have an event and it lights up, then you take what is a carbon sink and create a carbon source. Because when it's burning, it's releasing all the carbon.

I know there are disagreements about whether or not management is an effective tool. I think it is, particularly if you're trying to mitigate some of the insect infestations, like pine beetles that we've had in the Black Hills in the past.

But I guess what I would say is as we look at the future, and they're in the process of revising the Forest Management Plan, I hope at least having good data is really critical and just getting continuity out there in the leadership. We've had several supervisors in the last seven years in the Black Hills, so it's really hard.

Lori Walsh:
Why do you think that is?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, there's a couple of them.

Lori Walsh:
I know what the rumors are, which I'm not going to say because they're rumors. They're just that. But do you know why that turnover has been happening?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I mean this last one was two weeks and yeah, it wasn't rumors, I don't think. I think it was a real problem, so they pulled this guy back. I know it's a hard one to manage. In fact, most people would tell you the Black Hills, partly because we started doing this in 1899, the Timber Program in the Black Hills.

But by then because of the Gold Rush in '76, there was already a lot of private ownership. So you're working around, you got the Forest Service in this big protected area, but you got all these private ownership that you're working around. It's probably the most populated forest in the country just in terms of being inhabited by people, which creates complications.

And then you've had all these fights through the years over the amount of harvest and whether or not or how it ought to be managed and managed effectively.

So it just seems like, at least as they send people out from Washington DC, they just really churn through them. And part of it too, I think, is being able to work with the local community. And that's a challenge too, because there are, in a multiple-use forest, lots of interest. You've got the logging industry, you've got the environmental groups. There has been for a long time, and when I was first involved in politics, a lot of litigation around this. We kind of worked through some of that. It's settled down a bit, but there are still a lot of disagreements about what's the best plan forward.

The only thing I'll tell you is that because it's one of the most productive forests that the Forest Service has in terms of the timber harvest, they need to have that industry there for those times when they need to go in and thin. Because there are times when the risk of forest fires grows or you get an insect infestation. So if that industry is killed, if it dies because they don't have enough business to keep them going, that's not a good outcome either.

And so we've been trying to work with the Forest Service. I've met with Vilsack on this and talk to the leaders in that community about a long-term plan just to ensure that if it's not coming out of the Black Hills that we're at least getting timber from somewhere to keep these mills busy.

Lori Walsh:
I want to go back to something that you said about mining because a lot of the mining regulations are from the 1872 Mining Law.

It hasn't been substantially updated, so I'm going to ask you in a minute if you think there should be major revisions to that.

But first, for people who are aware of the mineral exploration projects that are in the hills, and Secretary Deb Haaland from the U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management are studying further this Jenny Gulch project.

So right now, no mining can happen. No mining exploration, I should say, that's a mining exploration project, as they look at the impact on the watershed for the Rapid City Watershed.

As I talk to people in Custer, there's another program, same gold company, it's called Newark. They're worried about their water too. And what they really want me to ask you is, is our watershed in Custer and French Creek as important as the watershed that flows into Ellsworth Air Force Base?

I think you could understand what a small town is getting at there when some of their concerns are. Public input is over for that project. We're waiting for the Forest Service to decide whether they'll grant the categorical exclusion or whether they'll kind of go the way of Jenny Gulch. There needs to be a pause. We need an environmental assessment or environmental impact study.

What do you want to tell the people of Custer?

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I think that any community in the Black Hills, we all need water to survive, and so water quality is a huge issue. And I do think that, at times, you've got to modernize and update laws that pertain to these because things change significantly over time. I think you can take an approach. We all ought to be interested in responsible stewardship of this resource, because a wonderful resource. But again, I think getting the data, which I think they're, again, accumulating working on. It starts there. If you're going to make good decisions, you got to have good information. I know there are a lot of these dated historic claims that go back a long ways, and I think the questions about whether or not those are ever acted upon is part of what's at the essence of this discussion and debate right now. But I think let's get the information and let's try.

My argument would be, Lori, I think there's always a case for collaboration, and trying to figure out how to solve these problems in a collaborative way instead of going to your corners and litigating it.

We've tried to do that in previous farm bills. The 2014 farm bill had the categorical exclusion for pine beetle infestation up to 3,000 acres, some exemptions from NEPA, and I think at the time that made sense.

But again, every time you do a farm bill, which is every four or five years, things change and you've got to modernize those laws and the policies and make them reflect what's happening currently.

Lori Walsh:
I want to go back. So what I'm hearing is that you are open to the idea of a revision of the 1872 Mining Laws. That's what I heard you say. I know it's more complicated than that, but it's not a closed door. I'm not hearing a closed door there.

Sen. John Thune:
Well, it's a statute that's 150 years old. And I know there are some of the same claims and property issues that probably existed back then, but you got to recognize it's clearly a different time. Like I said, there's a big, big population of the Black Hills, which there wasn't back then.

Lori Walsh:
Would you support the mineral withdrawal for the entire Black Hills region?

Sen. John Thune:
The mineral what?

Lori Walsh:
The mineral withdrawal.

Sen. John Thune:
Well, I don't know that I have an answer on that just yet. Again, I think we need to get as much information and data about the impacts of both past and present operations because there are some, like I said, some very dated historic claims out there. And I think in order to evaluate those properly, you need to have got to have the information.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. One more time, because I just want to make sure that you heard this part of the question, which is the people of Custer want to know that you believe their watershed is as important as the Rapid Creek watershed.

Sen. John Thune:
Well, sure.

Lori Walsh:
Because they're going to listen to that. They're going to say, "Oh, we start talking about a whole bunch of other things." Let's just go back to that thing of the importance of a watershed for a small town when a mining company wants to leverage what may be legal.

Sen. John Thune:
Well, and Custer is, it's arguably a small town in a relative sense, but compared to where I grew up, it's kind of a big town. But there are a lot of people there. There are a lot of people, particularly between Mother's Day and Labor Day, a lot of folks who are in Custer. It's a great community, and yeah, the policies that would apply in a community like Rapid City or the expectations that we have about water quality, they should be the same no matter where we live.

Lori Walsh:
Sen. John Thune, thank you so much for giving us so much of your time today. We appreciate it.

Sen. John Thune:
Thanks. Good to be with you. Thanks, Lori.

Lori Walsh is the host and senior producer of In the Moment.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
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