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Transcript of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Remarks to the National Congress of American Indians' Executive Council

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Location: Washington, DC


Transcript of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns remarks to the National Congress of American Indians' Executive Council Winter Session Washington D.C. - February 27, 2006

SEC. MIKE JOHANNS: Well, Hello everyone. How are you doing? Conference going well? Now I have to, somebody slipped me a business card as I was coming in and Judy Gaiashkibos. Hi. How are you? From Nebraska, yes. I've got a special assignment for Judy. When she goes home, you see my kids, tell them I found work in Washington, all right?

[Laughter]

But it is great to be here, and it's great to look out and see some familiar faces. I have been on the job about a year, and it's gone very, very quickly, unbelievably so as a matter of fact. Today I've been given the assignment of offering some perspectives on some things that are happening budget-wise and maybe even more specifically relative to my mission area, which is the United States Department of Agriculture.

So what I'm going to do today is just launch into that, give you a briefing, let you know what we have going. Do you want me to take questions when I'm done?

VOICE: If you have time, yes.

SEC. JOHANNS: I can take a few questions before I leave.

Well it's that time of year when we release a budget here in Washington, and President Bush recently released the budget for 2007. USDA expenditures are estimated to be about $93 billion in 2007, which is about a $3 billion decrease from 2006 spending levels. Ladies and gentlemen, you know it is never easy to tighten our belts. Judy can tell you when I was the governor of Nebraska we had to do that on a number of occasions, and it's never a pleasant situation.

This budget exercises fiscal discipline in order to reduce the burden of the federal deficit. The deficit as I said the day we released the budget is real. It is debt. Somebody has to pay it at some point. We either start dealing with it now or very truly you leave it behind for the next generation.

That being said, I'm pleased that the President's proposed budget allows USDA to continue funding priority programs. They would include animal identification. You've been working with us in many areas on that issue. Rural Development and developing alternative energy sources and conservation of our natural resources.

Let me touch quickly on each of those issues.

We are committed to fully developing the National Animal Identification System or NAIS because it has numerous benefits. NAIS will support ongoing disease monitoring surveillance and eradication programs. It will allow us to respond more rapidly and effectively in the event of animal health emergencies. The USDA Animal and Plant Inspection Service is actually in the final stages of setting up a website designed specifically to address the animal ID needs of our tribes. This website is available to you and will allow you or your appointed agents, such as tribal organizations, to enter and manage your own databases and information.

In addition we are working with some larger tribes for specific training and data collection needs unique to their situations which will allow them to be full partners in our current efforts. It's an important issue.

In the area of rural development, USDA Rural Development in its present form was established in 1994 as a part of a very comprehensive reorganization at the USDA. In its first five years from '95 through 2000 the agency invested about $500 million in Indian country. Since the beginning of the Bush Administration in 2001 we have roughly doubled that commitment.

We have invested over $1 billion in tribal and Alaskan native communities. That's money well invested in a variety of projects. You've seen those -- water, wastewater facilities, telecommunications, electric generation, central community facilities, economic development and housing.

Who would have thought that this department created so many years ago by President Abraham Lincoln would some day become the Rural Development engine that it has? Specifically last Friday I announced that the USDA would be awarding over $21 million in grants and loans to increase energy production and improve electrical service and energy efficiency in rural communities.

Included in that sum is a $1.9 million grant to the Navaho Nation's Sacred Power Corporation to provide hybrid power stations to individual homes around Cameron, Arizona, that have no electrical service and currently use gasoline generators.

Gasoline is an inefficient and costly way to provide power to your home, and I'm pleased that we are making strides in reducing our need for it. Once again, who would have ever thought that the United States Department of Agriculture would be involved in this kind of venture when our department was created more than 100 years ago?

In the area of energy, President Bush said in his recent State of the Union address that we are far too dependent on foreign oil, and I could not agree more. Higher fuel costs hurt everyone from coast to coast. At USDA we understand that problem, and we're working to develop short-term and long-term solutions.

Since 2001 the U.S. government has invested nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources. And we are on the threshold of incredible advances. The President's budget proposal for 2007, USDA's core investment in energy related research and public lands projects increases to $85 million from $67 million in '06. In addition we expect to provide in excess of $250 million per year in '06 and '07 in Rural Development programs that generate increased energy supply and efficiency.

This funding provides tools that help producers manage impacts of higher costs, helps in the development of renewable energy resources, and new energy-efficient technology.

I'm talking about harvesting America's farm-based cash crops. That might be corn or soybeans or sunflower, canola or other plant material to develop new, clean sources of oil. In the short term, USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service has also released an on-line energy estimator that allows producers to calculate potential savings per year. It's been a very popular website.

In addition, we just released an on-line energy estimator for nitrogen use, an awareness tool that allows farmers and ranchers to identify potential nitrogen cost-savings associated with major crops.

In the area of conservation, as you know, we're currently crafting our proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill. High energy costs, rural development, and animal identification are just a few of the issues that we're dealing with.

It's too early to lay out specific proposals, but let me assure you that we are analyzing feedback we've received. I think I can safely tell you today though something that probably is of no surprise, and that is one of our priorities in the next Farm Bill will be conservation efforts. We recognize the important partnership that NRCS has with the tribes concerning our nation's natural resources, and we are working toward continued growth in program participation by tribes.

Having a close working relationship is essential, and we appreciate it. NRCS is currently in negotiation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to update the 1988 memorandum of understanding that clarifies the respective roles in coordinating, planning and implementing conservation programs on tribal land.

Currently NRCS has 45 full-time and 30 part-time offices that serve tribes exclusively. In addition there are other offices near reservations that provide assistance. We have assisted in the establishment of 26 tribal conservation districts which provide the essential local leadership necessary to effectively target conservation planning and conservation program assistance in tribal country.

In addition we are trying to increase program participation through very targeted funding. NRCS has encouraged states to provide separate competitive tools for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Nationally we've set aside funds in EQIP and other programs for competition among limited resource farmers and ranchers, beginning farmers and ranchers in Indian tribes. As a result there's been an increase in program participation since the '02 Farm Bill.

Since '02 EQIP funds obligated for American Indian and Alaska Native contracts have increased by $13 million. We recognize the importance of using effective consultation in the development of these programs and we welcome it. By getting tribal recommendations up-front, USDA will be more effective and efficient in providing needed programs.

Let me just wrap up and say, we have appreciated your partnership. Many good things are happening, and we want to do more. So I look forward to a continuing partnership in the years ahead. Thank you very much.

[Applause.]

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