President Trump’s top agricultural adviser says the new administration won’t tolerate federal support for advocacy campaigns like What’s Upstream.
Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance, outlined the White House’s farm policy priorities in a speech March 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
“This administration will not allow the EPA to give taxpayer dollars to activist groups who then turn around and put up billboards that attack our farmers and ranchers,” said Starling, a former general counsel for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
The promise cheered Gerald Baron, director of Save Family Farming, which was formed last year to respond to claims by What’s Upstream that farmers are unregulated polluters who let cows wade in rivers.
“This indication from Ray Starling is important. It gives us optimism some of these things will be dealt with,” Baron said.
Between 2011 and 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency financially supported What’s Upstream, which was organized by the Swinomish Indian Tribe and several environmental groups. They hoped to influence Washington state lawmakers to vote for stricter limits on farming near waterways.
The campaign included a website, radio ads and a letter-writing campaign, but billboards in Olympia and Bellingham attracted the attention of federal lawmakers. The EPA withdrew its support soon after Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., called the billboards “disturbing” and “malicious.”
The tribe, funded by an EPA grant passed through the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, had a budget of some $655,000 for the campaign. The EPA’s inspector general has yet to release a congressionally requested audit into how the money was used.
Some federal lawmakers accused the EPA of breaking a federal law prohibiting the grant from being used to lobby policymakers. The Washington Public Disclosure Commission recently ruled What’s Upstream didn’t need to report its political activities. Although the campaign advocated mandatory 100-foot buffers, it did not cite a specific bill and did not need to register as a lobbying effort, according to the PDC.
The PDC was responding to a complaint from Save Family Farming that named a tribe official, Seattle lobbying firm Strategies 360 and then-EPA Northwest Administrator Dennis McLerran. The Trump administration has not yet appointed a new region administrator.
Baron said Save Family Farming will ask McLerran’s successor to get back federal money spent on What’s Upstream and ensure the tribe doesn’t resume the campaign.
“Given the severe disappointment with the state taking this issue seriously, it’s gratifying the federal government with the new administration is considering this a pretty serious issue,” Baron said.
Starling said the White House supports trade. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which many farm groups supported. “The president is committed to negotiating agreements that secure open and equitable access to foreign markets,” Starling said.
Starling did not talk about immigration policy, but said farm labor will be another top priority.
“We are getting to a point of push comes to shove when it comes to access to a reliable workforce. That is something we definitely have to work on for agriculture,” he said.
Starling said farmers and ranchers have been the victims of “one regulatory proposal after another.”
“We have to halt the regulatory onslaught,” he said. “The administration will never lose sight of the fact that the number one farm preservation tool we have is farm profitability, not buzzwords, not catch phrases, or a federal grant program.”
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