Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says Congress needs to do for the national forests what the Oregon Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown have just done to boost firefighting efforts and reduce the threat of wildfires, more of them likely to occur with a warming climate.
Vilsack spoke with reporters Tuesday, Aug. 3, after he and Brown toured a farm near Salem and were briefed by officials about the status of wildfires, particularly the Bootleg fire that has consumed more than 400,000 acres northeast of Klamath Falls. Much of that acreage is within the Fremont-Winema National Forest.
Brown has signed state legislation (Senate Bill 762) that stems from recommendations of her Council on Wildfire Response back in 2019. Attached to it is $220 million in state funds to increase the number of firefighters on the ground and modernize planes in the air, install automatic smoke detection cameras, map high-risk wildfire zones and define defensible space around homes, carry out projects such as forest thinning and prescribed burning, and provide clean-air shelters.
"It is a positive and proactive step," Vilsack told reporters at the state's Emergency Operations Center. "It shifts the responsibility to the federal government to do likewise, which is why what is being debated in the Senate right now is incredibly important. It recognizes that when you talk about infrastructure, it's not just roads and bridges, as important as those are, plus ports and waterways. It's also about the green infrastructure."
Vilsack leads the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, which oversees 10 national forests and a total of 16 million acres, about 25% of Oregon.
"We heard from the briefing today that close coordination has been one of the keys" to a successful state-federal relationship, Vilsack said.
"But that takes you only so far. That is why it is necessary for Oregon to do what it has done with its new legislation, and for us to do what we need to do … to have the resources to step up our game in terms of personnel and step up in terms of forest restoration, better management and more resources for suppression."
Bipartisan legislation for public works was whittled down in the Senate from President Joe Biden's original $2.6 trillion to $550 billion. But it left $50 billion intact to help Western water storage and other projects better withstand the effects of climate change, such as wildfires.
Biden has created but not funded a Civilian Climate Corps, a new version of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which between 1933 and 1942 put thousands of primarily young men to work in the forests — including what is now Silver Falls State Park east of Salem. That corps and other money for climate-change work is likely to await a separate $3.5 trillion budget package yet to be shaped in the Senate.
"By creating the corps and encouraging young people to participate in those activities, we will help create that next generation of firefighters and folks willing to work for the state and federal governments in forest management," Vilsack said. "Not only do we want these forests to be healthy, we want them to be great places to recreate."
Vilsack and Brown agreed on a need for more federal-state projects such as the Good Neighbor Authority to reduce wildfire threats.
"We leverage federal resources and federal partnerships, and put Oregonians to work doing the thinning and prescriptive burning that needs to happen to ensure that our landscapes are more resilient," Brown said. "I think it is incredibly important that both state and federal governments step up because we are seeing a new era of wildfire. Both in terms of resources, people power and equipment, we both need to step up further."
Both were briefed by state and federal officials in a closed-door meeting on the status of wildfires. According to the state's dashboard, 98 active wildfires involved 463,432 acres in Oregon — although the largest wildfire by far is the Bootleg fire, the nation's largest and the second largest in Oregon history, at 413,462 acres. The fire, first reported on July 6, is 84% contained.
Both toured the G&C Farms near Salem to observe the effects of drought. Much of the Willamette Valley is officially in "severe" drought, but less onerous than in Klamath County, where drought is either "severe" or "exceptional." Ahead of Vilsack's visit, USDA announced $15 million in emergency aid to Klamath Basin agricultural producers.
They also conducted a discussion with farmers and farmworker representatives.
The governor's office said participants were Lisa Hanson, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture; Taylor and Brian Martin, operators of G&C Farms; Tiffany Monroe, co-owner of Monroe Farms; Nathan Jackson, ranch manager; Mark Wiegardt, owner of Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery near Tillamook; Josh Zielinski, owner of Alpha Nursery near Salem; Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN farmworkers union; Venancio Carillo, a member of the United Farm Workers union; and Ben Stone, co-owner of BTN of Oregon, a Christmas tree farm near Salem.
Vilsack said the farm they toured is diversified.
"I think it is a model for the future of agriculture," Vilsack said. "It is a more resilient system. I think we want to be able to see farmers continue to prosper in Oregon and throughout the country. It is an opportunity for us to have more competitive markets and a more equitable and fair USDA."
Oregon is second only to California in the diversity of its agricultural products — nursery stock and seeds top the list — and 80% of its products went to out-of-state markets in 2019. Half of that total went to other nations.
A second time
Vilsack, 70, is a former two-term governor of Iowa and was agriculture secretary all eight years Barack Obama was president. He is the first agriculture secretary to return to that job after leaving it. Only one person in U.S. history, James Wilson, served longer in that job during the presidencies of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Vilsack said when he came to USDA the first time, the nation was still in a deep economic downturn.
"But what we are dealing with today — between COVID, climate and equity issues — are significantly larger challenges," he said. "They also create an amazing opportunity for the department to play a positive and proactive role. I think there is a genuine willingness on the part of the president and vice president to provide the leadership and the resources to USDA to do a better job of being a partner in the forests and of creating new and better markets for our farmers — both in large-scale production agriculture and also what we saw here in Oregon with specialty crop growers."
He also joked that he would have an opportunity to correct things from his first tenure.
"As governors and state leaders, we are often in a position of educating (Cabinet) secretaries about topics," Brown said. "I can tell you Secretary Vilsack has an encyclopedic knowledge about topics of agriculture, fires and forests. it's pretty extraordinary for Oregon and the entire country to have his visionary leadership."
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