Federal aid for wildfires and floods often does not reach the rural communities most vulnerable to climate risk and least able to prepare for disasters, but according to new reports from a think tank, there are ways to increase access to funding. 

The reports, from the Center for American Progress, show how decision-makers can design and implement resilience funding programs under the new bipartisan infrastructure law to better help rural communities adapt to, and recover from, the effects of climate change.

“There’s a tremendous amount of money and resources that are available through the infrastructure law, and now the [Inflation Reduction Act],” Mark Haggery, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “We want to make sure that it’s reaching the places that need it most, and where it can do the most good.”

Haggerty said more than 90% of the land area of the United States is considered rural. 

“That’s where the infrastructure for renewable energy is going to be built and cited and where transmission lines are going to cross,” he added. “It’s where forests are going to be thinned. And restoration work is going to happen. It’s where watersheds are going to need to be improved to slow runoff to capture more water in the headwaters. So there’s a tremendous amount of work that needs to happen in rural communities.”

Haggerty said that it’s often difficult for small, rural communities to access grant funding.

“There’s a lot of data that needs to be collected to prove that you’re eligible,” he said. “A lot of times, you need to have a project completely scoped, and shovel ready, so to speak. And that’s a big ask for rural communities.”

Some ways that the government could help make funding more accessible for the rural communities include: Investing up to 20% of grants in building lasting capacity, such as hiring local and long-term staff; increasing rural competitiveness for national grants by making small and appropriately designed projects eligible; and providing agency assistance to help rural communities navigate the complex process of securing federal grants.

One report examined the wildfire season in New Mexico, in which 900,000 acres of public and private land burned throughout the state from April to June 2022. That’s almost four times the annual average from 1995 to 2015.

The newly created Community Wildfire Defense Grant (CWDG) program is a part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

“Rural communities are often the most susceptible to climate disasters, including wildfires, flooding, drought, and increasingly extreme weather,” according to the report, titled How To Improve Community Wildfire Defense Grants To Build Rural Resilience.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said in the report that climate change is leading to conditions on the ground never seen before. 

“Drought, extreme weather, wind conditions and unpredictable weather changes are challenging our ability to use prescribed fire as a tool to combat destructive fires,” he said. “Fires are outpacing our models and … we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions on the ground.”

Sofia Garcia-George, co-author of the report, said in an interview with the Daily Yonder that the federal government needs to prioritize rural communities – with special attention to those with additional levels of historical underinvestment– in their statutory and regulatory policy process, especially in conversations around climate change, environmental justice, and the energy transition. 

“Rural communities have been and will continue to be disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change, and rural communities will also play a central role in the national transition to renewable energy,” she said. “This means that the federal government needs to involve rural communities in the policy implementation process. To achieve this requires a strong, long-term presence of federal employees in these communities.”

The second report, How FEMA Can Build Rural Resilience Through Disaster Preparedness, examines the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent $1.5 billion through the program in the last two years to increase the resilience of communities to natural disasters before those disasters occur.

“BRIC’s focus on pre-disaster resilience is a paradigm shift. Yet the results of the program’s first two years raise concerns about its ability to deliver assistance to communities most susceptible to natural disasters and least able to prepare for and respond to them. In the past two years, fewer than 10 percent of nationally competitive BRIC grant proposals received funding, and communities in relatively populous and wealthy states won more than 80 percent of those dollars,” according to the report.

The most vulnerable rural communities frequently lack the resources to complete the process, let alone be nationally competitive, Kevin Manuele, co-author of the report about BRIC, told the Daily Yonder. 

“Small communities need much more support to be successful in BRIC and other federal grant programs,” he said. “Some state governments and nonprofits are beginning to fill this need, but the level of support varies wildly between states, and is lowest in impoverished rural areas – the same places that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters.”

He said the Biden Administration’s decision to direct 40% of funding to applicants from disadvantaged communities is an important step in helping underresourced communities. 

“However, it does little to help the communities that lack the resources to even complete an application in the first place,” he added. 

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