Tom Vilsack to a White Paging Telephone Please

Tom Vilsack is back in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is almost a cult hero among midwestern farm, ethanol and biotech lobbies.

Jim Petersen -
6 MINUTE READ
Tom Vilsack to a White Paging Telephone Please

Tom Vilsack is back at his old desk in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Vilsack, 70, won easy confirmation to be the Biden Administration’s Ag. Secretary. The former Iowa Governor is almost a cult hero among midwestern farm, ethanol and biotech lobbies. No wonder the Senate gave him a 92-7 thumbs up.

Vilsack hit all the Biden Administration’s political touchstones in his opening remarks before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry – climate change, safe and nutritious food, clean water, systemic racism, renewable energy and rural broadband, a commodity long missing in hundreds of rural communities still tethered to dial-up Internet service. You can read his opening remarks here.

To our dismay, Secretary Vilsack made no mention of the West’s wildfire pandemic. In fact, the word “wildfire” does not appear in his prepared statement. I guess he hasn’t read the 2020 Wildfire Statistics report from the Congressional Research Service.

You can read the January 4, 2021 CRS report here. 10.3 million acres were lost. 40 percent of it in California where we witnessed the first million-plus-acre wildfire since 1910. The 1,032,648 acre August Complex burned across six northern California counties and three national forests. We don’t yet know how many million tons of carbon the fire belched into western skies.

Environmental and Social Justice - Where?

When I think about environmental and social justice turned on its head, I picture carcinogenic wildfire smoke clouding the lungs of millions of hapless westerners. Our national forests are the source of most of this smoke. According to the Forest Service, somewhere between 90 and 100 million acres in the West are dead or dying. This means that half of the nation’s western federal forest estate is storing little or no new carbon.

Secretary Vilsack no doubt wishes the Forest Service wasn’t his responsibility, but it will be for at least the next four years. To his credit, he did tiptoe up to the nearly bottomless political precipice in his opening confirmation remarks. “To respond to the challenge climate change presents to conserving, preserving and growing healthier forests, we need a strong commitment to forest management and restoration.”

What he didn’t say…

Boy howdy! But wouldn’t it have been great if he’d said something like this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a crisis on our hands in western national forests and we can no longer whistle past this grave yard with a wink and a nod. Nature’s response to years of neglect and mismanagement has been to burn millions of acres of forest we thought we were conserving and protecting. But we were kidding ourselves.

The only way we can conserve and protect our national forests is by managing them using our only safe and reliable science-based tools: various harvesting techniques and prescribed fire. Then we can get back to storing carbon in national forests.”

Avoidance is not a working strategy

No doubt Secretary Vilsack heard several versions this story from the Forest Service many times during the eight years he served as the Obama Administration’s Ag Secretary. But let’s get real here. The Forest Service’s $5.3 billion appropriation for 2021 amounts to about 3.6 percent of Agriculture’s $146 billion appropriation. If you turn this David and Goliath mismatch into an eight-hour work day, you have Goliath spending 17 minutes a day on David’s problems.

Vilsack has lots of capable help – most notably Robert Bonnie, his Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy and Senior Climate Advisor – but this is the Secretary’s watch and Congress will take its cues from his words.

Bonnie is a godsend but it isn’t his job to carry Vilsack’s water for him. There are certain expectations that come with being a cabinet secretary – the chief one being that you will stand foursquare for the federal agencies that report to you and fight like hell for the money they need to do their jobs - but don’t have.

Let’s do the math

Our back of the envelope estimate is that the Forest Service is between two and three billion dollars short of what it needs annually for perhaps the next decade – monies needed to rebalance its forestry and firefighting operations.

The well-regarded National Association of Forest Service Retirees estimates that the Forest Service is currently about 12,000 people short on the forestry side – a direct result of the fact that more than half the agency’s $5.3 billion annual budget is allocated to wildland fire. You can read NAFSR’s report here.

The bottom line here is that there isn’t enough money left in the Forest Service’s annual appropriation to attack the underlying problem: dead and dying trees that are fueling fast moving and deadly wildfires that are nearly impossible to slow and control.

Do the right thing - not the easy thing

Secretary Vilsack knows this from his Obama years, but fearing reprisal from the anti-forestry cancel culture, he apparently doesn’t feel free to talk publicly about the environmental disaster that is sweeping western national forests. Science and technology provide the tools needed to reverse course. What has been missing for 30 years is political will.

We know many people with real-world experience in the forest restoration arena: Forest Service retirees living in small western communities surrounded by national forests, volunteer members of forest stakeholder collaborative groups that rallied around the 2016 Farm Bill and loggers capable of transforming dying forests into park-like marvels. None of this expertise will be found in Washington, D.C.’s fever swamps.

I don’t know if Secretary Vilsack knows any of these people, but Robert Bonnie does. He was the luncheon speaker at the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership’s annual meeting in Boise, Idaho in 2015. At the time, he was Obama’s Undersecretary of Agriculture, which made him the direct link between Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, and Secretary Vilsack.

Increase pace and scale

Bonnie understands collaborative group frustration with the fact that restoration work in national forests is not proceeding at a pace or on a scale that even comes close to the rate of tree mortality in western national forests. He also knows that the billions of dying and dead trees that crowd national forests are the fuel source for fires started by lightning or errant campfires. The only way to safely remove the fuel is to first thin then burn – especially in the wildland urban interface where allowing fire to “play its natural role” is too damned dangerous.

Restored/thinned forests continue to store carbon as growth in residual trees accelerates. Dead forests store no new carbon. Secretary Vilsack spoke to this in his confirmation hearing, noting that forests represent the best “natural carbon capture that exists.”

Private forest landowners know this too. Seattle-based Green Diamond, the nation’s fourth largest forestland owner, just sold 250,000 tons of carbon credits to Microsoft. The Redmond, Washington company hopes to be carbon negative by 2030. Good for them.

If you are going to talk about carbon load you must address wildfire

But for perspective, know this: The nation’s seven largest private forest landowners manage about 21 million acres between them. By contrast, the U.S. Forest Service is responsible for 193 million acres – a badly broken carbon sink nine times as large. Last year, wildfires in California alone belched 91 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - 364 times as much carbon as Microsoft purchased from Green Diamond last month.

Tesla/SpaceX visionary, Elon Musk, is offering a $100 million prize for a device capable of removing 10 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from earth’s atmosphere annually. Here’s hoping some enterprising eighth-grader sends him a picture of a green and growing tree.

As long as dying western national forests continue to burn in devastating wildfires, the Biden Administration’s climate change goals will remain a distant dream.

Secretary Vilsack needs to pick up that phone.