Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a fresh $500 million in funding for wildfire mitigation Tuesday and warned lawmakers to keep the Inflation Reduction Act's forestry funding aimed at its current purpose. 

But Vilsack's comments, which come as Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill push the idea of using the IRA's climate-smart conservation program funding for a variety of farm bill uses, relate to a provision of the climate package that congressional Republicans haven't targeted in recent farm bill discussions. 

Vilsack and other Democratic farm policy leaders have pushed back against the idea of using the IRA's conservation-focused funding, arguing the funding should remain targeted toward conservation programs in agriculture. But speaking to reporters Tuesday, Vilsack defended other parts of the IRA as well, arguing wildfire mitigation requires a long-term focus.

“We need to continue to do this, we can't just do it for a year or two,” Vilsack said. The IRA, passed in 2022, and the 2021 infrastructure bill both included funding to address wildfire-prone areas throughout the country, but Vilsack said the two bills are “down payments.”

“Certainly, it would be particularly difficult were Congress to essentially take resources from the Inflation Reduction Act and redirect them for a different purpose. It obviously would reduce our capacity to continue the momentum that has built over the last couple of years,” he said. 

“There's an expectation and understanding that in order for us to continue, there will come a time when the resources that have been provided through these two important historical pieces of legislation will need to be continued,” Vilsack added. “Congress will have to work with us to find the resources to be able to continue this important work. It doesn't get done in a year or two.”

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Much of the IRA funding debate in the farm bill has centered on funding for USDA’s Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program. Under congressional budget rules, about $14.4 billion could be reallocated within the farm bill, according to Republican staff of the House Ag Committee.

The Senate Ag Committee's senior Republican, John Boozman, has suggested opening up the funding to more conservation practices than those specified in the IRA. Other congressional Republicans have suggested some of the money could be used in the farm bill’s commodity title.

But the bill also includes a $5 billion for Forest Service initiatives on forest health and wildfire fuel suppression, which was the target of Tuesday’s investment. 

The funding is allocated three ways: $2.2 billion to acquire land for conservation practices and plant trees within underserved communities; $500 million for competitive grants to implement forest resilience efforts; and $2.15 billion for “hazardous fuels reduction, vegetation and watershed management, protecting old growth forests, and timely processing of environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act.” 

According to USDA, the $500 million announced Tuesday is targeted toward the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy. The investment will be split between a $400 million allocation to 21 priority Western landscapes to reduce wildfire risk for 550 communities, 2,500 miles of power lines and 1,800 watersheds. The remaining $100 million will go to the newly created Collaborative Wildfire Risk Reduction Program, which will work in high-risk areas outside the 21 priority zones.

In a statement to Agri-Pulse, House Ag Committee spokesperson Ben Goldey said the committee appreciates USDA's wildfire crisis efforts, “but these investments only work if we have the loggers, infrastructure, and markets to support them. Unfortunately, project delays and endless bureaucratic red tape continue to stand in the way of meaningful progress for those impacted by wildfire.”

Tuesday’s announcement brings the total funding provided through the IRA and the 2021 infrastructure bill to $2.4 billion, USDA said. Vilsack said the spending for wildfire mitigation is already paying dividends.

“The risk of wildfires being catastrophic or out of control gets reduced every single year we continue to do this work,” he said.

Aside from his IRA concerns, Vilsack also reiterated his oft-stated frustration with the ongoing funding talks on Capitol Hill to secure final appropriations for the 2024 fiscal year, which began about four and a half months ago. The Biden administration has requested $252 million — $180 million through USDA and $72 million through the Department of Interior — to bolster firefighter wages permanently following an increase in compensation through the IRA.

“As long as Congress continues to delay finishing its work on a budget, then it becomes a circumstance where firefighters begin to worry whether or not they'll be able to continue to have pay and support, and they begin obviously looking for opportunities, “Vilsack said. “In fact, we've seen a number of folks already leaving the state of California and that puts a strain, obviously, on the system.”

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