As Congress continues to debate the farm bill, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the Valley Tuesday to speak with local agriculture leaders. But he also called for Washington to do more when it comes to fighting wildfires.
He told a crowd of about 200 hundred people at Fresno State that passing a farm bill is essential to the San Joaquin Valley’s ag economy.
“I think everybody in agriculture in California is anxious for Congress to finish its work on an important Food, Farm and Jobs bill that will allow us to continue to invest in the safety net that is important to farmers,” Vilsack says.
But he also used his address to call for a new approach when it comes to battling forest fires, such as the Rim Fire, which burned over 400 square miles in and around Yosemite earlier this year.
“The problem has been that over a long period of time we haven’t invested in resiliency and the restoration of our forest,” Vilsack says.
He said years of poor forest management, plus climate change and disease have left millions of acres with dangerously high levels of fuel.
According to Vilsack the Forest Service spends around $2 billion a year fighting fires. This year, the number of fires totaled 40,000. He told the audience that he’s asked President Obama to look at new ways to fund efforts to stop so-called mega-fires.
“We’re working on a new way to adequately fund fire suppression so we don’t have to take money from the restoration side of the budget which will allow us to accelerate in making these forests more resilient and removing that hazardous fuel so the risk of fire is reduced and the intensity of fire is also reduced,” Vilsack says.
He said the farm bill contains provisions for stewardship contractors to use wood cleared from overgrown forests, but he also said more can be done to turn forest waste into renewable sources of energy.