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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Of Farm Bills and Forests

Air Date: Week of

Ken Cook

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for policy on everything from food safety to forestry management. President Obama’s pick for the position is Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa. Host Steve Curwood turns to Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, to look at the challenges that lie ahead for Vilsack.


CURWOOD: Okay now, here’s a riddle – what federal agency hands out billions of dollars, sometimes to people who promise NOT to work, is in charge of our nation’s trees AND inspecting our food?

Well, that’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which develops policy on food, hands out billions in farm subsidies…and oversees the Forest Service. Former Iowa governor and presidential candidate Tom Vilsack has been confirmed by the Senate to lead the USDA.

Joining me to take a look at the challenges that lie ahead for the new Secretary of Agriculture is Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. Mr. Cook, tell me about Tom Vilsack and his record as Iowa’s governor.

COOK: I think he’s a listener. I think he’s someone who’s going to use his time in office to wade into tough issues, whether it has to do with forest service rules, whether we will spend more money for more nutritious school lunches, whether we’ll cap farm subsidies – all kinds of contentious issues, Steve. I think he’ll weigh in and listen to all sides. I don’t feel like he’s so beholden to agribusiness or so oriented towards conservation or the environment that we can really tell at this stage how he’ll come down on and what advice he’ll give to the President on any of these issues at this stage.

CURWOOD: Ken, let’s go through a few issues now that Tom Vilsack is going to face. At the top of the list is ethanol. Ethanol got, I think, three quarters of all the federal renewable energy tax credits in 2007. How do you see that changing as Mr. Vilsack takes over now at USDA?

COOK: Well I would say that two years ago, there was much less questioning of corn-based ethanol than there is today. When food prices went up, when there has been new evidence of the impact of ethanol in terms of causing land to come into production and, as a result of that, causing increase in greenhouse gases. Vilsack has said on the one hand that he has been a big supporter of corn-based ethanol. He has also said that he thinks that that needs to give way to something that is better, but no one has really described very well just how superior the next generation of ethanol might be. I think Vilsack is coming in at a very important time where we need to have a much more robust discussion about the future of biofuels than we’ve had so far. And I think everyone is looking to see whether he will come to it with the judicial temperament that he’s known for. And whether he will be willing, if it comes down to it, to take on, in some cases, his own home state interests and friends in the ethanol industry and say, “Wait a minute. Maybe we’ve gone too far to fast on corn ethanol. We need to rethink this.”

Ken Cook

CURWOOD: The USDA handles the Forest Service, something that many people aren’t aware of. How much of a conservationist do you think Tom Vilsack will be when it comes to roadless rules or protecting something like the Tongass National Forest, which is a major temperate rain forest for the whole planet.

COOK: Well – he does not come to the job with much of a track record at all. Coming from the Midwest, where these national forest issues are not nearly as heated as they are, for example, in Alaska where the Tongass National Forest is a critical and very controversial issue. I think what we’ll have to look for again is his conservation temperament, will that come through? Will he err on the side of conservation or will he heed the concerns, particularly in this tough economic period we’re in, to create jobs by allowing more lumber to be cut from national forests. I think the key thing there is to look to who is appointed as the head of the Forest Service, the chief, and then, above that position, the undersecretary for the forest service and natural resources will be a key position. My sense is he’ll probably tilt toward conservation.

CURWOOD: During the presidential campaign Sarah Palin, vice presidential Republican candidate, drew a lot of criticism for seeming to endorse the shooting of wolves from airplanes. But this is something that the USDA does as part of its quote “wildlife services” to manage predatory species like coyotes and wolves. How do you think Tom Vilsack will handle this issue of shooting wolves from airplanes?

COOK: That’s a good question. I hope he comes down clearly on the side of dropping that practice and focusing again on our ability to conserve wildlife species at the same time we have a prosperous economy. I don’t think he’s going to come into this with the same kind of attitude that we saw in the last administration where natural resources that are owned by the public were seen as something that should be turned over as quickly as possible to private interests. I don’t think he comes into the job with that orientation at all. But I think on very difficult issues like predator control, he’s going to be up against not just the outside interests who want to continue past practices, but probably a considerable bureaucracy or portion of it within the various agencies who want to continue that too.

CURWOOD: In sum, Ken Cook, what are your hopes for the USDA under the Obama administration?

COOK: Well, I hope it goes back to being what Lincoln intended, since we started with an inauguration that was so steeped in Lincoln’s tradition. He called it the ‘People’s Department’ when he established it. It needs to be the people’s department again. It can’t be the agro-business department, it can’t be the lumber department, it can’t be the animal slaughterhouse department. It has to be the people’s department. Protect food safety, value conservation highly, even if it means at the expense, in some cases, of maximum production. Take care of the hungry. He has the entire food stamp program under him, the entire school lunch program under him. So he’s really got an opportunity to step in and say, “This is once again going to be the department as Lincoln intended it. And we’re not going to be beholden to special interests. We’re gonna open up our doors here and listen to everyone, and when we act, we’re going to act in the public’s interest, not just in the interest of the big dogs.”

CURWOOD: Ken Cook is the president of the Environment Working Group in Washington, D.C. Thank so much, Ken.

COOK: Thank you.



The Environmental Working Group


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