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Washington, D.C. — During a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet questioned U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack on his plans to implement historic drought and wildfire funding and urged him to make the agency’s programs more accessible for family farmers and producers in Colorado.
Last Congress, Bennet secured over $10 billion for USDA to invest in our forests and watersheds and over $19 million for conservation and environmentally-friendly farming practices in both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and in the Inflation Reduction Act.
On drought, Bennet asked:
“We introduced our bill to protect our watersheds and do what needs to be done with our national forests – the Protect the West Act… But I was very pleased that we were able to work together to include $10 billion when you combine the money in the Infrastructure Bill and in the Inflation Reduction Act for pre-fire mitigation, for forest health, for all of that.
“That’s a big chunk of money. It’s an unprecedented amount of money. It’s a lot less than the $60 billion that we’ve spent the last five years fighting fires in the West. But as you know, and I know you know this, it’s a much cheaper way of dealing with the issue that we’re confronting. I wonder if you could just give the committee an update about how you guys are thinking about spending that money, getting it on the landscape, and making sure we make the most of what Congress has appropriated.”
“The first thing that we needed to do, senator, was to identify where the most significant fireshed risk was in the West. And we have identified that in 21 priority landscapes, 250 firesheds within those landscapes, roughly 45 million acres all told. We are in the process of investing nearly a billion dollars over the next couple of years in 134 of those 250 firesheds in an effort to try to mitigate and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire, which is a serious issue.
“So there is resource being spent there, there is also resource being spent in helping communities become more resilient to fire – fire adaptive communities. That is also part of what we’re doing. And finally, we’re working to reforest. We have a fairly significant and pretty aggressive goal of doing hundreds of thousands of more acres of reforestation and that project is also being funded because of what you all did on the REPLANT Act.”
On improving USDA programs, Bennet asked:
“I’ve had Farm Bill listening session after Farm Bill listening session – I think we’ve had 26 in Colorado so far – and we’re headed to a record because people are really interested. And I want to thank you for coming out to Talbot Farms in Palisade for one of those, early on. And there, in that conversation with our producers, you heard something I hear everywhere I go: which are concerns about programs like EQIP and CRP and USDA Rural Development community facilities.
“In fact, they are exceedingly burdensome in many respects for Coloradans to access, slow to access, and sometimes it has to do with understaffing, sometimes it just has to do with the bureaucracy not getting back. And – we’ve had this conversation before – you are fortunate, I think, and the country is fortunate to have you in this job a second time, and I just want to hear a little bit about what you’re doing to make the place a little more customer friendly than it’s been historically and what we can expect to see coming forward.”
“When I came back to this job, there were 6,500 fewer people working at USDA than before… And the morale was very, very low. So it was necessary for us to rebuild morale and it was also necessary for us to rebuild the workforce. We are doing that. We are hiring more people at NRCS. We are hiring more people at the Farm Service Agency. We are hiring more people in Rural Development. We have made an effort through the budget to be able to hire more folks.
“It is a challenge because our compensation system now, today, is not competitive. It is very difficult to keep people in some of these jobs. The private sector attracts them once they get a little training, and so it’s not only recruiting people, it’s also retaining people. But we’re hiring more people, and that makes a difference.
“We’re also looking at ways to simplify the application process. I mentioned the Farm Service folks simplifying the loan application. NRCS is doing the same thing with reference to the applications necessary to access these programs.
“The additional funding that you’re providing under the Inflation Reduction Act is a big, big opportunity for us. We’re going to continue to hire more people and we’re going to continue to put those resources to work. We know we have a backlog of needed conservation programs. This is going to allow us to address that backlog and allow us to target these resources in ways that will help drought-stricken areas, help advance climate-smart practices, improve soil health, all of that.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be in this job – I have no idea – but I’d love to be able to go home and have a Farm Bill listening session where people are saying, we’re actually seeing improvements on the ground because of what we’re doing together here.”
During the hearing, Bennet also reiterated his concerns about low Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) rates that discourage participation across the West. As chair of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources, Bennet plans to use his subcommittee to build on his efforts to address the Western water crisis in this year’s Farm Bill by making new investments in farmland conservation, forests, and watersheds, and ensuring USDA programs address the needs of Colorado family farmers and ranchers.