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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

USDA Secretary Vilsack announces $1B in additional wildfire aid at meeting of Western governors in Coeur d’Alene

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks Tuesday at the Western Governors Association annual meeting at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

The skies above Lake Coeur d’Alene were clear and blue on Tuesday, but U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had the prevention of woodland fires on his mind.

Vilsack, one of several members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet attending a meeting of the Western Governors Association this week in Coeur d’Alene, announced an additional $1 billion in federal funding for wildfire prevention.

“We fully expect and anticipate great interest in this effort, for us to partner with state and local governments,” Vilsack told governors and reporters.

The money will be awarded competitively to local governments and tribes as part of the president’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law, and Vilsack said his department will begin accepting applications in early August. The grants will be given to protect areas beyond federally owned land, he said.

The benefits of the infrastructure bill, passed largely along partisan lines in Congress, were touted by both Vilsack and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in remarks to a group of eight governors representing the 21 states and U.S. territories that are part of the association. The event, the first in three years the governors’ group has held in person as a result of the pandemic, is being hosted by Idaho Gov. Brad Little, one of six Republicans who took the stage Tuesday.

“Our problems are somewhat unique,” Little said of the member states, “but they’re also somewhat common.”

The group Tuesday included two Democrats, Govs. Jared Polis of Colorado and David Ige of Hawaii. Gov. Jay Inslee will not be in attendance during the three-day conference, which is scheduled to include U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

“I have higher duties here in the state of Washington,” Inslee said in statement in response to The Spokesman-Review’s question about why he wasn’t attending. “I think there are some things I can help Washingtonians with more here than going to that particular organization.”

The assembled governors on Tuesday said the association helped guide policy and cooperation among the Western states, particularly issues related to natural resources, health care and energy.

Polis told assembled media that he intended the organization to push for development of geothermal energy, already being tapped throughout the West, including in Boise, where more than 90 downtown buildings are heated using water warmed by underground rock.

“It’s really a win-win. Harvesting the heat beneath our feet, a domestic energy source contributing to our national security and our energy independence,” Polis said.

Both Vilsack and Becerra fielded questions from the group of governors in an afternoon session, after delivering updates on programs related to their departments. Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa in his second stint as Agriculture secretary following eight years with the Obama administration, said the continued development of biofuels would be a priority of the department, even as the federal government pushes for adoption of electric vehicles.

“There’s obviously a lot of conversation and discussion, as there should be, about electric cars,” Vilsack said. “But the reality is we’re going to continue to need that biofuel that’s produced in states across the country.”

On wildfires, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana praised Vilsack for pushing for more forest stewardship programs across the West. But he said the agency could do better informing the public about their firefighting strategies, which he said aren’t always clearly explained by those in charge.

“My suggestion would be to encourage better real-time record-keeping,” Gianforte said, saying such an approach leads some communities in Montana “to have less confidence than they would otherwise have in the Forest Service.”

Vilsack acknowledged the issue but said states and Congress could be doing more to push for additional firefighters. He noted that the Agriculture Department’s spending had not grown at the same rate as defense spending, even though he said firefighting was a security issue.

“That’s the challenge, is to make sure that people understand that when they invest in the Department of Agriculture, they’re investing in their security,” Vilsack said.

Becerra’s department oversees the administration of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the Centers for Disease Control. A former member of Congress and attorney general for the state of California, Becerra said the goal of the Biden administration, coming out of the pandemic, is to treat behavioral and mental health as equally important as physical health.

“The president’s budget proposes a historic investment in behavioral health, some $50 billion over the next 10 years,” Becerra said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, asked what the administration’s approach would be in addressing addiction, particularly the rising number of deaths attributed to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Becerra said the administration supported harm reduction methods, including making strips available that can test street drugs for the presence of fentanyl. The opioid is often laced with other drugs and unknowingly consumed by a user, who then dies of respiratory arrest.

Becerra said such a practice would be unthinkable a couple decades ago.

“We would say, we’re just enabling drug use. And I respect those who still believe that,” Becerra said.

“The problem is, of course, they’re going to take it. Whether we like it or not, they’re going to take it,” Becerra continued. “And so, from our perspective, we’ve signed on with those who’ve said, ‘Let’s try to save a life.’ ”

Becerra acknowledged that the administration’s perspective on several health-related issues might differ with some of those onstage.

Without explicitly mentioning the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the federal right to an abortion, Becerra said the administration had established a Medicaid program extending postnatal care to new, eligible mothers from 60 days to a full year.

“What we know is that, within that first year, life for that baby and that mom is very precarious,” he said.

States have to opt into that coverage. Hawaii and Colorado, the two states represented at the conference by Democrats, have indicated they will offer the extension, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. So has Arizona, represented by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. The five other states represented by Republican governors – Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and North Dakota – have not.

Little told reporters earlier Tuesday that states will be responsible for crafting their own abortion policies following the Supreme Court’s decision.

“We continue to look at what needs to be changed, what needs to be tweaked, and I think every state is having that same issue,” Little said.

Idaho has a trigger law banning abortion that will begin in 30 days, after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its mandate Tuesday. The law is being challenged by Planned Parenthood in Idaho’s courts.

The Western Governors Association continues Wednesday with remarks from U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, amid ongoing turmoil in the rollout of the agency’s online record-keeping system at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane and elsewhere. The group is scheduled to hear from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday.

Staff writer Laurel Demkovich contributed to this report.