Later today, the Senate Agriculture Committee will begin the confirmation process for the man who will likely oversee our rural forests when it holds a hearing for former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to be the next secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Agriculture secretary plays an important role in shaping forest policy that impacts so many rural Americans. He holds sway on policies impacting the 192 million acres of forests owned by the US Forest Service and the 475 million acres of forests owned by rural families and other private entities.
Some 22 million Americans own woods across America and some 900,000 people are directly employed in a forest products industry that is fueled by our forests.
As President Donald Trump looks to boost the hard-hit economies across rural America, his forest policy and the Agriculture secretary will be key.
Thankfully, Gov. Perdue understands forests and rural America. He has a proven track record of supporting policies that help conserve and manage our forests. He also has personal experience managing his own woods.
So what can the Trump administration do to help rural Americans?
They can create policy that helps rural Americans, such as Nancy and Ed Zorensky.
The Zorenskys live on 35 acres of forest land in the foothills just west of Denver, Colo. Their land helps clean the water for the city. In the past 21 years, there have been five catastrophic forest fires near their home.
Foresters advised the family to thin their trees to mitigate the impact of future fires. Unfortunately, with the limited number of mills in the area, it costs more than $2,000 per acre to treat their land. While they know they have a responsibility to care for their woods, this is a price the Zorenskys could not afford without help.
Wildfire is one of the most pressing issues that Gov. Perdue will face. While the debate about wildfire tends to focus on publicly owned forests, more than one-third of the high fire-risk lands in the West are owned by people like the Zorenskys.
As timber harvesting has dropped on public lands over the last several decades, mills across the West have shuttered. Private landowners, like the Zorenskys, have no one to buy their timber and no way to afford the management they know is critical to safeguarding their property, supporting the rural economy, and cleaning the water.
Over the next four years, the Trump administration, quarterbacked by Secretary Perdue, can help the Zorenskys and millions of people like them, by supporting three important policy initiatives.
First, they can help create or increase markets for timber by supporting legislation like the Timber Innovation Act. This bipartisan legislation will support research, development, and innovation in forest products manufacturing.
Next, through smart investments and improvements in programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Trump administration can share some of forest management costs with families like the Zorenskys to reduce their wildfire risk. These investments will pay off in the long run with lower wildfire fighting and water treatment costs.
Finally, the Trump administration must fix how the federal government pays for wildfire fighting. Right now, as wildfire-fighting costs rise, the Forest Service robs efforts to help people like the Zorenskys, to pay for firefighting. We need a new policy that allows both simultaneously if we’re ever to get ahead of the curve.
If the Trump administration, led by Perdue, can accomplish these three tasks, it will go a long way toward boosting rural economies and supporting families like the Zorenskys.
Tom Martin is president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation.