U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper of Colorado sent a letter Tuesday to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, urging him to support wildfire recovery in the West and specifically in Colorado.
In the letter, the Democrats included information about the devastation brought on by wildfires last year and asked Vilsack to make wildfire recovery a priority.
“Last summer, wildfires consumed over 10 million acres across the country, with almost 50% burning on National Forest Service land,” the letter said.
The letter also focused on devastation and recovery needs in Colorado, where three of its largest fires in history scorched thousands of acres last year.
“Last year, the Cameron Peak Fire burned over 200,000 acres in four months, and in one day alone, the East Troublesome Fire grew more than 100,000 acres,” the letter said. “In Colorado, the U.S. Forest Service has already identified approximately $50 million in immediate needs.”
Bennet and Hickenlooper also acknowledged both the importance and the faults of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Emergency Watershed Protection program and the Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response program. They urged Vilsack to take action to ensure that the programs become more effective.
“The effectiveness of these programs is sometimes limited due to administrative hurdles, local match requirements, staffing shortages and inconsistent funding,” the letter said. “Therefore, we encourage you to use USDA’s broad discretion to maximize flexibilities as needed, and we stand ready to work with you in Congress to ensure that wildfire recovery programs have the funding and flexibility they need.”
The senators’ letter comes almost two weeks after Vilsack’s confirmation to the position of USDA secretary.
As a member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Bennet participated in Vilsack’s confirmation hearings. During his confirmation hearing, Vilsack agreed with Bennet that forests are important and undervalued as “critical infrastructure” in the U.S.
“Yet we still aren’t managing our forests like the critical infrastructure they are,” Bennet said in the confirmation hearing. “And with climate change driving hotter and drier conditions, we’re experiencing more catastrophic wildfires across the West, including the three largest in Colorado’s history last year.”
Bennet expressed support for Vilsack’s nomination early on in the confirmation process, telling him they would “roll out the red carpet” for Vilsack if he ever visited Colorado.
The letter was similarly friendly. The senators expressed their appreciation for Vilsack and their interest in working with him.
“We appreciate your demonstrated commitment to our forests and watersheds and look forward to working with you in the months ahead to ensure that Colorado communities have a partner in the USDA as they recover from these devastating wildfires,” the letter said.
Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.