I met Sonny Perdue last Thursday, June 11. We talked for about 10 minutes about the West’s wildfire pandemic. More on that in a moment…
George Ervin Perdue III – is the Trump Administration’s Secretary of Agriculture.
He prefers to be called “Sonny,” a nickname he’s had since his growing up years in Bonaire, an unincorporated hamlet about 100 miles south of Atlanta. He knows the drive to Atlanta well from his eight years as the only Republican governor of Georgia since Reconstruction.
Secretary Perdue brings a southern grace to Agriculture that I find refreshing. He is a Georgia farm boy at heart and a breath of fresh air in the forestry world. He was in northern Idaho and eastern Washington on Thursday for separate farm and forestry events.
Partnerships, Good Neighbors, and Shared Stewardships
I caught up with him at the Idaho Forest Group’s Athol finger-joining mill. He joined Idaho Governor, Brad Little, and First District Congressman, Russ Fulcher, in a roundtable discussion that centered on what might be done to expand on Idaho’s Shared Stewardship partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.
The partnership and its Good Neighbor Authority flagship were embedded in the 2014 Farm Bill and Idaho has led the way the way in collaborative forest restoration since then, in large part because of an ingenious “pay it forward” funding mechanism devised by Bob Boeh, who was then government affairs vice president for IFG. The mechanism directs a portion of the profits from money-making restoration projects to projects that can’t pay their own way.
Wildfire, Forest Management, and Litigation
Thursday’s roundtable discussion lasted close to an hour and was wide-ranging but questions from participating lumbermen centered on serial litigants and what needs to be done to reduce the risk of killing wildfires in the West’s national forests. What quickly became apparent is that Secretary Perdue understands the direct relationship between litigation and the inability of the Forest Service to do more Shared Stewardship forest restoration work under the aegis of Good Neighbor Authority partnerships involving western state forestry agencies.
“We’re as frustrated as you,” Perdue replied. “We’re working hard on a solution but we’re not there yet. Judicial appointments really matter.”
I was very pleased to hear the Secretary voice his support for protecting natural assets that are the cornerstones of the West’s burgeoning outdoor recreation industry. In First, Put Out the Fire! I reference the Big Four: Clean air, clean water, abundant fish and wildlife habitat and a wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity. Serial litigants are an enormous stumbling block on the road to protecting these assets – and Perdue knows it.
Duane Vaagen, a Colville, Washington lumberman we know well, asked Perdue what lumbermen could do to support Perdue’s agenda.
“I’ll turn that question around,” Perdue quickly replied. “What can we do to help you?”
“I can answer your question just as quickly,” Vaagen replied. “You can encourage the Forest Service to treat us more like customers – and in that regard they need to price their timber more competitively. If the goal is to sustain the forest – and I think it is – then the trees we are asked to remove need to be priced to timber markets that are very competitive.”
Because Georgia has a burgeoning forest manufacturing sector backed by some 22 million acres of privately owned timberland – Secretary Perdue clearly admires the “gee whiz stuff” he sees in IFG’s state-of-the-art mills and he is in his element in conversations centered on the economic and environmental benefits that flow from well-managed forests.
One Last Question…
“This shared stewardship model is the way forward in our national forests,” he told me when we talked after the roundtable adjourned. “It gets lots of diverse interest groups around the same table and it addresses economic and environmental goals. You have to meet both or you won’t succeed with the public.”
I readily agreed, thanked him for coming to Idaho and said there was one question that hadn’t been answered in the course of the roundtable.
“What’s that,” he asked.
“On a scale of one to 10, how well do you think the Forest Service is prepared for what is predicted to be a bad wildfire season – that will be made worse by COVID-19?”
He thought for a moment, then said, “I think we’re at about a seven, up from maybe five. Can we get to 10? I don’t know. Wildfires are always unpredictable but we’re trying.”
He left with two of our books – one from me and another from Duane Vaagen, who calls the book his “new brochure.”