Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, August 3, 2021


Can the White House and Congress Deliver for Rural America?—Forest Megafire Edition

With New Englanders, Northeasterners and Great Lakes states recently experiencing hazardous air conditions from Western wildfires blowing east, I figured it was time to revisit the role “forest management” plays in fueling the high number and intensity of blazes in recent years. Put another way, can forest managers in the West do anything to reduce wildfire risk, much of which is federal or locally-owned public land?

Luckily, there is a loose network of science-based forest experts, workers and rural community advocates who have documented the clear benefits of what they call “active forest management.” From thinning dense understories to implementing prescribed burns controlled by forest workers, these Westerners understand that fires are a reality. In the words of Nick Goulette, who I interviewed a while back for the Yonder:

“One of our guiding questions is how do we manage the forest to get the fire we want? What is the scale of fire we prefer? What are the fire patterns in the landscape we find acceptable? What is the frequency we can live with?”

I’ve watched as thousands of these forest-minded, forest-oriented, forest-working rural people—Nick Goulette included—gain some notoriety and policy influence for their efforts. Part of the reason I wanted to share these thoughts today is that the New York Times recently released a short video profile that showcases some of these good folks. Go ahead, click on the screenshot below. You should watch it.

Meet the People Burning California to Save It, New York Times

If actively managing forests to decrease wildfire risk is the goal, and it seems like this is among the most reasonable of reasonable goals described by policy advocates, we’re going to need forest workers to implement forest management. To get the federal funding for those forest workers, Congress has to act. And this looks like one of those times when the House and the Senate could, possibly, maybe, somehow get it together to do something good for rural communities.

The draft bipartisan infrastructure deal being negotiated right now has $3.3 billion for USDA and the Department of the Interior, “aimed at preventing natural disasters like wildfires and floods that have slammed farmers, ranchers and rural communities in recent years,” according to Politico. That’s a good start.

And there’s still the potential of addressing these forest issues as a priority in the Democrats’ looming budget reconciliation bill, which can be passed without Republican votes. Again, that’s if the Democrats can get their act together like they did to pass the American Rescue Plan. Climate and forest advocates are looking to that package to support a Civilian Climate Corps program, and it’s expected that many of those CCC folks would be working in rural forest management, restoration, recreation and other related rural infrastructure efforts.

So the spectrum of what happens ranges from billions in resources for wildfire management to maintaining the status quo: a budget-deprived federal forest workforce that can’t keep up. It’s worth following this issue, as it continues to be critical in so many communities throughout the nation that don’t normally garner the attention they need to influence federal policy and budgets. And, yes, I also have many thoughts and opinions about forests, forest economies, the forest products industry, climate change and more. But that will have to wait until the next Keep It Rural, friends. See you next time.


Rural Reading List

Hopefully you are in the mood for some good rural reading this week. There’s some excellent stories here at the Yonder, as well as other national outlets. Check them out:

Economy of Pandemic Whipsawing North Carolina’s Logging and Sawmill Industries

This Carolina Public Press story, republished by the Daily Yonder, examines how incredibly high lumber prices have failed to trickle down to forest workers, in this case loggers in North Carolina.

California Wildfires: Rising from the Bones

Lisa Tobe writes for the Daily Yonder about what it’s like to go through a mandatory evacuation in her home country of Pumas County, California.

A Mega-Dairy Is Transforming Arizona’s Aquifer and Farming Lifestyles

This High Country News investigation looks at how a giant dairy operation—Riverview LLP—impacts the people, environment and economy of both rural Minnesota and rural Arizona. From the “industrial livestock factories are on the rise” genre, this one highlights rural opposition to Big Ag’s expansion.

In this Rural Missouri County, the Vaccination Rate Is Low and Opposition High

This St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Associated Press story provides some context for rural Missouri’s low vaccination rates. And, yes, I’m obsessed with this topic since these are my people getting their 15 minutes of fame and supposed shame.


One More Thing: Justice… Delayed

For those of you following along/advocating for the racial justice provisions providing debt relief to socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers that are part of the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan Act, a headline like “Biden’s big attempt at equity in agriculture hits dead end” will catch your attention.

As this Politico report details, the legal foundation for the farmers of color debt retirement package is being litigated by conservative and rightwing groups. The article includes important analysis about likely rulings based on the Supreme Court and other federal judges appointed by former Republican Presidents Bush and Trump.

When the debt retirement was being negotiated in the early days of the Democrats’ majority, I spoke with many a policy wonk who raised concerns about the language and legal approach of the legislation.  That’s why nearly everyone involved was urging the White House and USDA to employ a rapid, aggressive implementation strategy. In this case, it’s obvious that rollout wasn’t fast enough to get the money through to constituents. There’s a lot more to say on this topic, of course. Let’s hope that Congress steps in and fixes the mess, though they seem to be losing that sense of urgency and purpose they had in Biden’s first 100 days. We’ll see.


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