Credit: Kevin Burkett via Flickr Creative Commons

Topic: Communications / Outreach Wildfire Type: Essay

Say What? Demystifying the Federal Policy Process for Local Leaders

Author: Karen Hardigg, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition

Skinny budget.

Continuing resolution.

Omnibus. Or is it a cromnibus?

If your eyes are starting to glaze over, you’re not alone. These terms have been in the news as Congress and the new administration work through the 2018 appropriations process. Even “appropriations” is just a fancy word for doling out money. The Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC) was initially created to give a voice to rural leaders in national policy discussions like these.

Working at the community level, what goes on in Congress may seem far away, complicated, irrelevant or all of the above. Yet the outcomes, like federal funding levels, directly impact how well we can steward our public and private lands.

For example, many of you know how the increasing cost of fire suppression is deeply impacting the USDA Forest Service’s budget. Last year, fighting fire accounted for more than 50 percent of the agency’s expenses, eating away at funds for other important services like recreation, restoration and education.

Funding the agencies and programs we partner with isn’t the only thing Congress does that can influence our collective work. With a misleading title, it’s easy to underestimate the importance of the Farm Bill to forest and range management, as well as rural economic development. At a mere 357 pages, the legislation includes not only farm and nutrition programs but also investments in conservation, forestry, energy and rural development. The 2014 bill alone authorizes programs that support collaborative, cross-boundary solutions, including: the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, Forest Stewardship Program, stewardship contracting, the Good Neighbor Authority and Rural Business Development grants, to name a few. The Farm Bill is up for renewal in 2018 and hundreds of organizations are hard at work advocating for improvements, reforms and more funds.

Even if you’re interested in understanding more about the federal policy process, it can be challenging and overwhelming to get involved. Federal policy issues are complex, attract people who speak in acronyms, and time is limited.

Yet this is a critical time to learn and speak up: many of the programs that enable our work are at risk. This May, RVCC is leading its annual Western Week in Washington, where we bring rural leaders and their stories and solutions to decision makers. But that’s a once-a-year trip. Lawmakers and agency leaders make important decisions all year long.

Three Western Week participants, where western rural leaders went to Washington D.C. to tell their stories related to federal wildfire policy.

RVCC participants during 2016 Western Week in Washington. Credit: Karen Hardigg, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition

RVCC is interested in figuring out how we can help rural leaders better engage in policy issues. So we began to ask ourselves: How can we demystify the policy process for all of us, especially for our partners working at the local level? How do we figure out where to engage? Where do decisions about rural economic development and natural resource stewardship happen? Who makes those decisions – Congress? Agency staff? Or the administration? Which committees does your senator or representative sit on? How are agencies organized and at what level should we engage with them? Does it matter?

This summer, RVCC will pilot a webinar series aiming to answer these questions and simplify the policy process. The stories you all have about what’s working, and what’s not, are essential to decision makers. We hope these policy trainings will make it easier for you to share these stories. And maybe next time you hear the term cromnibus* you’ll know what it means and how to get involved!

Is there something you want to better understand? A topic we should highlight? We welcome feedback and ideas, so please reach out to us at rvcc[at]wallowaresources[dot]org.

*Cromnibus (n) – a combination of a continuing resolution** and an omnibus.***

** Continuing resolution (n) – a stop-gap spending measure that funds the government for a short amount of time.

*** Omnibus (n) – a package of many spending bills.

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