The nominee for undersecretary of natural resources and environment at USDA, who will oversee the Forest Service, promised he would work closely with local communities in managing the more than 190 million acres of national forests to prevent wildfires and create markets for wood products.

Speaking at his Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing, Homer Wilkes laid out his priorities clearly: “First and foremost, wildfire management and prevention. Second, providing a safe, inclusive work environment for employees. Third, addressing forest sustainability and supporting and creating markets for forest products.”

Wilkes, a 41-year USDA veteran who currently directs the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Division, received a warm reception from both Democrats and Republicans and appears headed for swift confirmation.

“We look forward to supporting your nomination,” Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., said.

Wildfires were top of mind for most of the committee members.

“Wildfires have been increasing in size, number, and intensity every year, spreading like – well, wildfire,” Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said. “Right now there are 96 wildfires active in 14 states that have already consumed nearly 1.9 million acres and continue to threaten the livelihoods of the surrounding rural communities, including many farmers and ranchers.”

Wilkes mentioned forest thinning and prescribed fire as “active management” tools that need to be employed to prevent future fires. He also said it’s critical that the Forest Service involve local communities and use the service’s Good Neighbor Authority, which allows the service to sign agreements with state forestry agencies to manage the forests.

Without going into detail, Wilkes said the service’s resources are “somewhat stretched.”

He also said climate-smart forestry can be an important component of addressing climate change, which has been linked to the increasing spread of wildfires.

“The extent of area burned by wildfires each year appears to have increased since the 1980s,” says the Environmental Protection Agency. “According to National Interagency Fire Center data, of the 10 years with the largest acreage burned, all have occurred since 2004, including the peak year in 2015. This period coincides with many of the warmest years on record nationwide.”

Wilkes pledged to address longstanding issues at the Forest Service involving employee harassment and assault. The problem was the subject of House hearings in 2016 and 2018.

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“People should feel safe, people should feel respected,” Wilkes said, adding he would make it clear there will be consequences for “bad actors.”

“Our employees are our most valuable resource,” Wilkes said. “We need to make sure these employees are treated like family. You don’t treat your family badly.”

Wilkes has headed the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Division since 2013. He also has been  the state conservationist in Mississippi and acting associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He was nominated for the undersecretary position in 2009 but withdrew his name from consideration in order to remain in Mississippi until his three sons graduated from high school, a decision that was singled out for praise by some committee members.

The Biden administration is moving steadily to fill sub-cabinet positions at USDA. Of 14 positions needing Senate confirmation, three have been confirmed, six are in some stage of the confirmation process and five lack a nominee: undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs; undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services; undersecretary for food safety; chief financial officer, and assistant secretary for civil rights.

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