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Farm Bill Would Help Reduce Wildfire Risk, Perdue Says


What can the federal government do to reduce the risk from wildfires? This has become a much more pointed question after fire destroyed much of a town in northern California. California, like other western states, has enormous amounts of federal forest and grassland. A farm bill now before Congress offers an opportunity to adjust. It authorizes actions by the Department of Agriculture, which includes the U.S. Forest Service which manages enormous amounts of federal land. Sonny Perdue is secretary of agriculture, and he's on the line. Mr. Secretary, welcome to the program.

SONNY PERDUE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for joining us. I want to clarify a point of fact at the very beginning. President Trump said the other day when visiting California that the farm bill has $500 million for forest management. It's now reported that you've told reporters that the administration is not asking for extra money. Is there extra money in the farm bill?

PERDUE: Well, there will be extra money in the farm bill. I think it's really a cross communication there. The farm bill authorizes extra money for that. The - what I was referring to was last spring when the Congress gave us authorization to stop the fire borrowing where we had been borrowing money from our operational account to suppress fires because fires - forest - wildland and forest fires have never been considered a disaster, treated like hurricanes or floods. And now that - beginning in 2020, we'll be able to.

INSKEEP: Oh, and you're saying that the problem was that the Forest Service was having to borrow from other parts of their - borrow from park spending or other kinds of forest management or other parts of the Department of Agriculture in order to pay for emergencies, and you've managed to get out of that.

PERDUE: That's exactly right. And Congress secured that this past spring. But it only takes effect in the fiscal year 2020, which begins next October 1.

INSKEEP: OK. So is this farm bill going to fundamentally adjust the way that you approach the problem of wildfire?

PERDUE: Well, we hope that it will. If it gives us the authority to do what are common-sense measures in defensible spaces, protecting the urban-rural-forest interface there, structures and loss of life, we can prioritize those. Heretofore, we've been really litigated into paralysis about being able to do the common-sense thinning and underbrush cleaning that needs to happen to prevent these amazing, awesome forest fires.

INSKEEP: You're talking about controlled burns or removing dead wood, the sort of thing that reduces the fuel load, as fire experts say. Is that right?

PERDUE: That is exactly right, Steve.

INSKEEP: And why are lawsuits preventing you from doing that? What kind of lawsuits?

PERDUE: Well, again, there's been litigation for years. It just hasn't occurred. It's been in litigation for years of people who fear that we wanted to clear-cut forests, and thinning works effectively well. If you clean the forest floor of fuel load, you don't have these raging forest fires that just go where you cannot contain them. They may burn for a short period of time, but they're easily contained. Otherwise, when you have this underbrush in there - as well as a well-managed forest, a well-groomed forest is much more pleasurable for recreation, hiking, water quality and other things. It allows people to enjoy the public lands that they own.

INSKEEP: I know the administration has blamed environmental groups for those lawsuits, but when I've been in the West and interviewing people who live near federal lands, I get the impression that it's also sometimes just the neighbors who don't want the interference in their daily lives. Is that actually the case?

PERDUE: Well, it's like a lot of things in life. We don't want interference until these emergencies and disasters happen, and then we want people to come. And people move into these beautiful areas there for the peace and the tranquility, and, frankly, the space there. But they don't realize that they are in danger. And when these forest fires come just in California this recently - about the danger they're in as far as their homes and their lives being consumed.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Mr. Secretary. A couple of years ago, I got a chance to interview Robert Bonnie, who was then a top Agriculture Department official. He oversaw the U.S. Forest Service during the Obama administration. He named two big problems. One of them is fuel loads, which is what you and I have been talking about. The other is climate change. What is the role of climate change here? And how, if at all, does the legislation address that?

PERDUE: Well, we know that our forest fires in the last few years have gotten hotter. The humidity's gotten lower. Whether that's a cyclical change, we also - there are also data and history, Steve, that show back in the '30s there were huge major forest fires that make these look small even today. So we do know that we're back-to-back record years, and whether it's permanent climate change or a cycle of low humidity and hot air and wind currents, then it remains to be seen.

INSKEEP: Well, I mean, let's be frank. It's probably a cycle of some kind because things go up and down, but scientists have made it clear the cycles are going to get worse and worse. Do you assume things will be worse over time as you budget for this?

PERDUE: Well, I think we need to do what we need to do and part of that is doing what we've asked Congress to allow us to do regarding reducing the fuel load. And that's one of the things that we can do. Other things regarding precision agriculture and reducing our carbon footprint in agriculture are the kind of things that we're doing already.

INSKEEP: OK, Mr. Secretary, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

PERDUE: Thank you, glad to talk with you all this morning.

INSKEEP: Sonny Perdue is the United States secretary of agriculture. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.