A massive federal farming and agriculture bill that’s nearing final approval could provide additional funding for thinning efforts in Central Oregon’s most famous forest, while providing a boost to the region’s burgeoning hemp industry.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate voted 87-13 to approve a sweeping 800-page, $867 billion farm bill that addresses issues ranging from food stamps to subsidies for farmers. The U.S. House of Representatives will vote on the omnibus bill later in December.
For Central Oregon, one of the most important provisions of the bill is a section that extends and doubles the funding for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who led a bipartisan group of senators alongside Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to introduce the provision, said the extension could allow the Central Oregon-based Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project to continue its forest restoration work beyond 2020.
“All that collaboration that’s being built up … can keep going forward,” Merkley said.
The federal landscape restoration program, first approved as part of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, helped establish cooperative forest management projects that aid in restoring sensitive and fire-prone forests.
The Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project was selected in the first group of projects and includes a dozen individual efforts designed to improve and restore forest ecology across a 270,000 acres, according to Pete Caligiuri, a forest ecologist with The Nature Conservancy who provides scientific and technical support for the project.
Much of the project’s most visible work revolves around forest thinning and controlled burns, which are designed to reduce fuels that carry massive wildfires in sensitive areas of the forest, including a 26,000-acre section west of Bend. Merkley said the federal portion of the Central Oregon project was slated to conclude in 2020. However, the additional federal funding doubles the program’s budget to $80 million and extends it through 2023. The Central Oregon program could be a target for future funding.
Caligiuri said the federal funding goes toward implementation and monitoring efforts by the U.S. Forest Service rather than the collaborative project itself, but added that the federal agency is a key partner in the forest restoration effort.
“The work wouldn’t happen without the partnership with the Forest Service,” Caligiuri said.
Separately, Merkley and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pushed to include a section of the Farm Bill that legalizes the production of hemp at the federal level. Industry advocates suggest the change will remove roadblocks like banking and interstate commerce for Deschutes County’s hemp industry.
“I expect it to be a predominant crop in Central Oregon,” said Matt Cyrus, president of the Deschutes County Farm Bureau.
The bill would remove hemp, the non-psychoactive version of marijuana, from the list of Schedule-1 illegal drugs and allow growers to transport the crop across state lines. In states like Oregon, which established a framework for legal hemp in 2016, this allows growers to expand into new, out-of-state markets.
Cyrus added that legalizing the crop at the federal level also brings it out of the shadows, giving growers more access to loans and other financial resources.
“A lot of banks are still nervous,” Cyrus said. “All that goes away once this (bill) passes.”
While the crop can be used in everything from clothing to cooking oil, the most active current market is for cannabidiol, a non-intoxicating compound the plant produces that advocates believe has certain curative properties.
Merkley’s office, citing numbers from the Hemp Business Journal, noted that total sales for the U.S. hemp industry in 2017 totaled $820 million, and are expected to rise to $1.9 billion by 2022. Cyrus added that Central Oregon’s dry climate is a good fit for growing hemp, and added that the industry’s move toward the mainstream could bring more growers to the region.
“In five to 10 years, you will see (cannabidiol) in a lot of food products just like you see Vitamin C,” Cyrus predicted.
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