Biden plan will reduce catastrophic wildfires

November 1, 2021

By: The Working Forest Staff

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday that the U.S. Forest Service will be able to double or triple the scope of its wildfire prevention efforts if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s spending plan. The $1.75 trillion package would steer a combined $27 billion toward forest restoration and wildfire prevention over 10 years, according to the Senate Agriculture Committee. Vilsack said those funds would have a significant impact on combating wildfires.

“We do about, I think, roughly 2 million acres a year of restoration and reforestation. This is going to allow us to do two, three times that amount, which means that we reduce significantly the risk of catastrophic fire,” Vilsack said in an interview with McClatchy. Reducing the risk of major fires also dovetails with the Biden administration’s climate change agenda.

Last year’s wildfires in California, which burned a record 4 million acres, unleashed 120 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, according to a study by the California Air Resources Board. That was nearly as much carbon as all of the motor vehicles in the state – or twice as much as California’s power plants.

“If you’re really interested in climate, you want to keep the carbon in the wood. You don’t want it going back in the atmosphere in the form of smoke,” Vilsack said. “It’s a big deal for the environment, but it’s also an incredibly big deal for communities that are threatened by these fires.” Western states have been devastated by wildfires, with roughly 6.5 million acres burned in California over the past two years. 

During a roundtable with the president earlier this year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom complained about a “wait and see” culture on fighting wildfires within the U.S. Forest Service, an agency that falls under the Agriculture Department. During a visit in August to the Mendocino National Forest, site of the largest wildfire in the state’s history, Vilsack vowed that the agency would fight fires more aggressively while spending more on forestry projects that could reduce the risk of mega-fires.

Many wildfire experts say “thinning” forests is a crucial strategy for battling California’s recent wildfire crisis. These experts say the forests have become overgrown with trees and other vegetation, the legacy of decades of mismanagement by the federal government.

Asked Friday if Biden’s plan would address this concern, Vilsack pointed to a 10-year plan to accelerate preventive work in at-risk forests. “And with the additional resources you’re going to see significant expansion of the work,” he said. Vilsack, who held the same Cabinet post in the Obama administration, has emerged as the Biden administration’s main pitchman to rural communities on the two bills before Congress that represent the bulk of Biden’s domestic agenda and trillions of dollars in new spending.

Biden won roughly 33% of the overall rural vote in the 2020 election, according to the Democratic firm Catalist. But Vilsack said that rural residents are receptive to the president’s proposals. “I can’t overstate to you the ease with which this conversation can take place in rural communities because people get broadband, they get transportation, they get investment in conservation,” Vilsack said. The forest management provisions are part of a broader push by the Biden administration to expand conservation programs to combat climate change. The bill would steer another $27 billion to farm conservation programs, which Vilsack said would offer support to roughly 240,000 farms to incentivize “climate-smart” agriculture practices. That would represent between 40% to 50% of the farmland across the country, he said. “This is an easy sell to farmers because they’re already pre-conditioned to want to be part of this,” Vilsack said.

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