Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week announced expanded efforts to reduce wildfire risk across the western U.S. aimed at protecting at-risk communities and critical infrastructure across 11 landscapes in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
“It is no longer a matter of if a wildfire will threaten many western communities in these landscapes, it is a matter of when,” said Vilsack. “The need to invest more and to move quickly is apparent. Today’s announcement will bring more than $490 million to 11 key landscapes across the western United States, and will be used to restore our national forests, including the restoration of resilient old-growth forest conditions.”
The Forest Service announced their original 10 landscape project areas last year as part of the agency’s broader strategy to protect communities, critical infrastructure and forest resources from catastrophic wildfire. Combined with these initial landscape investments, the additional efforts being announced this week represent a total USDA investment of $930 million across 45 million acres.
This work spans 134 of the 250 high-risk “firesheds” identified in the Wildfire Crisis Strategy and will mitigate wildfire risk to around 200 communities in the western U.S. Firesheds are areas where wildfire is likely to pose the greatest risk to communities and resources.
The landscapes for these additional investments were selected based on the potential for wildfire to affect nearby communities and buildings, with a focus on protecting underserved communities, critical infrastructure, public water sources and Tribal lands. USDA also considered more than 3,000 comments from 11 roundtable meetings held in the first half of 2022, which included partners, industry, Tribes and other stakeholders.
Vilsack is also directing the Forest Service to use and prioritize a suite of provisions authorized in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to more quickly apply targeted treatments to the high-risk firesheds identified in the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, while opening up additional opportunities to pursue science-based reforestation, restoration of old growth forests and recovery of other areas impacted by wildfire.
These treatments are required to be ecologically appropriate, maximize the retention of large trees, protect old growth, and to consider possible effects on historically underserved communities and Tribes. Treatments are also to be carried out collaboratively alongside participating communities and partners.
“Doing this work in the right place, at the right time, and at the right scale, combined with the use of emergency authorities, will accelerate our planning, consultation, contracting, hiring and project work to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health and resilience,” said Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. “Collaboration with Tribes, communities and partners will remain a priority, and we will continue to use the best available science when carrying out this important work.”
This announcement comes on the anniversary of the launch of the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which debuted Jan. 18, 2022. A few months later, the agency introduced the initial 10 fire-prone landscapes that are now funded for the next five years through Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds. In addition, President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act will commit $1.8 billion to hazardous fuels reduction projects on national forests and grasslands.
Since releasing its Wildfire Crisis Strategy one year ago, the Forest Service and its partners have used the best available science and data to identify the highest risk landscapes for treatment projects. The Forest Service found that around 80% of the wildfire risk to communities is concentrated in less than 10% of firesheds. These targeted investments focus on firesheds of the highest risk, where projects are ready to begin or to expand.
The 10-year strategy calls for treating up to 20 million acres on national forests and grasslands and up to 30 million acres on other federal, state, Tribal, private and family lands to assure our forests are more resilient to wildfire and other effects of climate change, safer for communities, and remain key refuges for plants, fish and wildlife.
Over the past 20 years, many states have had record catastrophic wildfires, devastating communities, lives and livelihoods, and causing billions of dollars in damage. More than 10 million acres – more than twice the size of New Jersey – burned each year across the U.S. in 2020, 2017 and 2015.
In June 2022, USDA released the Secretary’s Memorandum on Climate Resilience and Carbon Stewardship of America’s National Forests and Grasslands. The Secretary’s memo builds on previous actions on climate change, equity, and forest resilience, and provides more specific and time-bound actions to integrate into agency programs. The Forest Service used the guidance in the Secretary’s memo to better inform the selection criteria for projects under the Wildfire Crisis Strategy, including equity, source water protection, community infrastructure and wildlife corridors. Recognizing that insects, disease, and wildfire are among the most significant threats to mature and old growth forests, in alignment with the Biden-Harris Administration, the Forest Service will be targeting hazardous fuels reduction projects to address these threats to promote the protection and restoration of mature or old-growth forests.