The future of wildfire management rests, in part, on the workforce that can mitigate the fires, and a leader at the U.S. Forest Service says the agency is working to create a competitive wage and benefits package to attract and retain top talent.

“Our firefighters are integral to our ability to do this work, and we need them in high volumes all across the country … the agency is working hard to be competitive in a very competitive market,” said Angela Coleman, associate chief of Forest Service, on this week’s Agri-Pulse Newsmakers.

Coleman says the agency, which is a branch of the Department of Agriculture, has “made some progress to close the gap in competition” by bumping up its firefighters’ salaries and improving benefits.

“I believe 13,000 firefighters received a bump in salary this year, and we're hoping that is not a one-time deal,” she said.

Coleman says the agency is working on creating a package with support for its firefighting staff including access to affordable housing and more mental health services.

“We have to think about the long-term impacts of doing this kind of work,” she said. “They need help in the benefits world for mental resiliency and mental health support.” 

Rita Hite with the American Forest Foundation, Malcolm North with UC Davis, and Christopher Martin, the state forester of Connecticut, also joined Newsmakers to discuss this year’s fire season and what changes they’d like to see in the next farm bill.

In the 2018 farm bill, Congress expanded the Good Neighbor Authority, which fosters partnerships between USFS and state and tribal entities to maintain federal forest acreage. Martin says the expansion has “been a game changer for many states that have federal lands within their boundaries.” He says in the next farm bill, the National Association of State Foresters, of which Martin is the immediate past president, would like to see the program expanded “to get the tribes and counties more engaged.” 

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North touched on the effects of climate change and how it has increased “the length as well as the intensity of fire season.”

In the West, “the fire season would often be something like June through October, and now a lot of research is suggesting it's at least two months longer on each end of that … There's been a pretty substantial increase in the season, the length of the season and the need to hold firefighters on for a longer period of time than we have in the past.” 

Currently, 40% of the forests in the U.S. are owned by private and family owners. However, Hite says 85% of these owners do not have access to a forester or a professional management plan, which is a resource she’d like to see made available in the next farm bill.

“The other key thing that we're seeing is there's an increasing need for forest owners to be able to participate in things like carbon markets,” Hite said. “New emerging markets have provided another financial mechanism for them to care for their land. So we see a big opportunity for this next farm bill to help unlock and leverage those carbon markets.” 

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