U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at an event at World Forestry Center in Portland on July 31, 2023. (Jacob Fischler/States Newsroom)
PORTLAND, Ore. — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sees the Biden administration’s climate agenda as a boon for rural economies, he said Monday during a visit to Portland’s World Forestry Center.
The U.S. Forest Service, which is part of the Agriculture Department, will begin accepting applications for a second round of grants from its Community Wildfire Defense Grant program for at-risk communities to help prepare for wildfires, Vilsack said. That program is part of a wider objective set by President Joe Biden to strengthen the middle class.
Three major laws enacted in the first two years of Biden’s presidency have provided billions in resources to address climate change. Those dollars can help spur rural economies, Vilsack said.
The longtime agriculture secretary was one of several cabinet members who fanned out across the country this week to promote the administration’s record and agenda.
Some Republican members of Congress have criticized Biden’s approach to climate, especially measures to limit fossil fuel production that they say limit economic opportunities in rural areas.
But Vilsack emphasized how climate programs can create economic opportunities in rural areas. He highlighted the USDA’s Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities that pays farmers and foresters for reducing carbon emissions and other climate-focused priorities.
One of the program’s goals is to create another revenue stream for rural areas with relatively limited economic opportunities, Vilsack said.
“This is a brand-new revenue opportunity for farmers and forested landowners by saying we will measure the environmental impact of what you’re doing, and someone will be willing to pay you for that result,” he said. “That is a new income source.”
Vilsack also promoted using forest byproducts to create building materials like mass timber as a way to both reduce fire risk and enhance economic opportunity.
“It’s one thing to manage the forest responsibly,” he said. “But the question then becomes what do you do with the wood? What do you do with product that’s taken out of that forest? How do you create the opportunity in addition to reducing the risk?”
Vilsack said he would visit the Portland airport later Monday to see an under-construction terminal that has used mass timber.
Addressing climate change in agriculture programs and reducing the associated wildfire damage can have a positive impact on rural economies, Vilsack and Democratic elected officials in attendance said.
“The only thing we want on fire this summer is Oregon’s economy,” U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said before introducing Vilsack.
The Labor Day 2020 fires in the state sparked more awareness about the danger fire can pose and the climate crisis in general, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat, said.
“We are at a crisis moment,” she said.
The Forest Service will accept applications for community wildfire grants for the next 90 days. The first round of funding under the program included about $200 million in grants.
Vilsack, Wyden, Bonamici and fellow Democrat Andrea Salinas, a first-term lawmaker who sits on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, all advocated for increasing pay for federal wildland firefighters.
Wyden said the issue should be “at the top of the list” for the farm bill that Congress is expected to pass this year.
Also Monday, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Department of the Interior, announced the agency would spend $11 million to research wildland fires. That funding, which will go to the multi-agency Joint Fire Science Program, comes from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law Congress passed in 2021.
“It is crucial we continue funding wildland fire science research and knowledge exchange at local, regional and national scales,” Grant Beebe, an assistant BLM director at the National Interagency Fire Center, said in a statement. “Research funded by the Joint Fire Science Program will continue to aid in our understanding of the complex wildland fire environment.”
Democrats playing defense on ag conservation
As Congress considers a reauthorization of agriculture and nutrition programs in the upcoming farm bill, Vilsack said lawmakers should continue the “momentum” conservation and climate programs have gathered during Biden’s presidency.
Democrats’ climate, social policy and taxes law that passed last year included important funding for rural conservation, he said. Alluding to the preferences of some Republicans in Congress, Vilsack said during a question-and-answer session with reporters that it would be a mistake to redirect some of that spending in the upcoming farm bill.
“Now’s not the time to take a step back,” Vilsack said. “Now is the time to continue the aggressive work that’s being done.”
Bonamici added that House Democrats were fighting efforts to roll back conservation funding. Vilsack and Bonamici said U.S. Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, would work to ensure climate programs in the USDA are not reduced.
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