Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith introduces bill to aid Mississippians impacted by drought, pine beetles

Published 2:18 pm Thursday, February 29, 2024

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) today introduced legislation to increase the ability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to help Mississippians combat the growing southern pine beetle outbreak spreading across the state.

The Emergency Pine Beetle Response Act would strengthen existing federal programs as well as provide USDA additional authorities to assist private landowners, timber cutting and hauling businesses, and local municipalities in responding to forest-related disasters.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of time in Mississippi to recognize the severity of the problem.  Large swaths of pine forests are dying before our eyes due to pine beetle infestations fueled by last year’s drought.  Dead trees are falling on peoples’ homes and on public roads,” Hyde-Smith said.  “In addition to being a danger to the public, private landowners are watching hundreds of thousands of dollars of timber investments literally disappear before their eyes.  Something has to be done.”

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As part of a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Wednesday, Hyde-Smith also discussed the pine beetle problem with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and received his commitment to try to improve administration of an existing USDA program that provides cost-share assistance to private landowners to implement emergency measures to restore forests following natural disasters.

“Prolonged drought stresses trees, especially pine trees, and a stressed pine tree is a ringing dinner bell for pine beetles.  All this to say, Mississippi is experiencing a major southern pine beetle outbreak, and private forest landowners across the state are devastated,” Hyde-Smith said.  “Now is the time for action.  It’s time to respond to infestations and, importantly, prevent further outbreak.”

The Emergency Pine Beetle Response Act (section-by-section) would:

  • Authorize an 85 percent cost-share payment to landowners to cover the cost of tree removal, commercial thinning, and related activities.
  • Establish a 50 percent cost-share payment to incentivize loggers, haulers, and tree removal services to carry out this work, which is a business expense that typically yields little profit.
  • Make landowners eligible for the USDA Emergency Loan program in order to access financing to do emergency work up front rather than wait for cost-share payment after work is completed.  Upon receipt of a cost-share payment, landowners would have the option to apply it to the remaining principal of their loan.
  • Authorize USDA to make grants to states and municipalities for infested tree removal and related activities.

Hyde-Smith received Vilsack’s pledge to address problems in the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) in order to address the more immediate needs in Mississippi where there are now nearly 80,000 acres of pine mortality, more than 12.5 million dead trees, and current timber loss estimated at $96 million.

EFRP provides cost-share assistance to private landowners to carry out emergency measures to restore forests following natural disasters, including drought and insect infestations.

“EFRP sounds like a viable option for landowners in Mississippi, but I have heard of some challenges and concerns about the program, such as the amount of time it takes to receive cost-share payments following a disaster,” Hyde-Smith said.  “Some landowners need financing up front to carry out emergency measures, and without it they often never take action.”

Hyde-Smith asked Vilsack whether USDA can improve the overall quality of assistance provided through EFRP, particularly in easing the time-consuming EFRP cost-share assistance process administered by the FSA National Office instead of FSA County Office Committees, which handle most other emergency assistance applications.

“I think the answer to your question is yes.  There’s a concern, I think, about transitioning it back to the county because then it’s difficult to keep track of the resources that are being allocated county to county.  That’s why it has to sort of funnel up to the national office.  But certainly, we can look for ways in which we can streamline that process,” Vilsack said.  “We can also look, and should be looking, at a way in which we can perhaps adjust the cost share issue in terms of advance payments so that work isn’t delayed.  I think those are two things that we ought to be doing.”

Vilsack also assured Hyde-Smith that he would help ensure that any required authorization by the FSA National Office to respond to Mississippi’s pine beetle outbreak happens in a prompt manner.

Hyde-Smith has also cosponsored the Disaster Reforestation Act (S.217), a bipartisan bill that would allow forest landowners to deduct the full value of timber destroyed during disaster events in the same way the tax code treats farmers and other agriculture crops.  Under current law, timber rendered unmarketable after a disaster is still considered a taxable asset.