The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Biden in November 2021. The bill includes billions of dollars to make many of our natural systems more resilient. NACD’s Government Affairs Team will be releasing a series of blog posts to break down funding opportunities for districts through the infrastructure law as federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and others work to get this funding on the ground.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $3.3 billion for wildfire risk reduction efforts and $2 billion for the USDA and DOI to carry out ecological restoration projects on public and private lands. The bill enhances funding streams to mitigate wildfire risks. Major investments include:
- $500 million over five years for prescribed burns.
- $500 million for mechanical tree harvesting and clearing “in an ecologically appropriate manner.”
- $500 million for developing fuel breaks and control locations.
There is also $500 million allocated to USDA Forest Service to award Community Wildfire Defense Grants to at-risk communities. Community Wildfire Defense Grants will be competitively awarded and aim to provide funding for communities at risk of damage from wildfires to create wildfire plans and begin their implementation. This grant program is a provides a pool of funding, in addition to existing wildfire planning grants, for low-income communities or those at high risk of wildfires. Grants awarded through this program will not exceed $250,000 for planning or $10 million for implementation. Priority for this funding will be given to high or very high-risk wildfire areas, low-income communities, and areas impacted by severe disaster. Conservation districts have long been positioned to support the creation of wildfire plans and have served their communities in pre and post fire work. While the Forest Service has guidelines on how to update and create these plans, it often comes down to local stakeholders like districts to coordinate and implement them. In 2020, the Skagit and San Juan Conservation Districts in Washington State worked with state and community partners such as the county Department of Emergency Management to update a decades old wildfire plan to include a new risk analysis, best management practices, and definitions of risk for local communities. Puerto Rico has also been recently active in this space. You can read more about the role of districts in implementing wildfire plans here.
Funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law also includes $180 million over two years for the Joint Chief’s Landscape Restoration Partnership via the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and Forest Service. These funds will assist producers and landowners to improve the health and resilience of forest landscapes across the National Forest System and state, tribal, and private lands. Its objectives are to reduce the risk of wildfires, protect water quality and supply, and improve wildlife habitat for at-risk species.
Conservation districts have received funding for Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Projects since the initial year of project funding in 2014. From 2015 through 2017, the Poultney-Mettowee Watershed Restoration Project was awarded close to $1.5 million to improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat in the local watershed. Both Bennington County and Poultney-Mettowee Resource Conservation Districts were central to bringing local landowners into the effort with best management practices and restoration projects on private land. Through cooperation with landowners and producers, the project developed thirty-seven forest management plans and implemented on-farm conservation practices on more than 500 acres of land.
Selections for new 2022 projects were made earlier this year, and several include conservation districts as key partners. One example of this is the Catalina-Rincon Restoration and Fuels Mitigation Project. In 2020, the Bighorn fire devastated more than 110,000 acres of land in the Tucson basin and Santa Catalina Mountains. The severity of the fire led to accelerated runoff, high erosion potential, and increased sedimentation in streams. This project will address erosion control issues and restore much of the land in the watershed that was burned during the fire. Several conservation districts in the Tucson area are partners in this project, along with many other local stakeholders. The fire destroyed nearly 12,000 acres of private property within the project area, making community and landowner engagement central to project success.
In addition to funding and several grant opportunities, the bipartisan infrastructure bill also includes regulatory changes, such as the inclusion of language from the Repairing Existing Land by Adding Necessary Trees Act (REPLANT). REPLANT removes the $30 million funding cap on Forest Service’s Reforestation Trust Fund providing the agency with additional funding for reforestation projects. The program will now receive an estimated $123 million annually. NACD has publicly supported iterations of this language included in previous bills.
NACD continues to work at the federal level to advocate for conservation districts’ perspectives on wildfire and forestry issues. Districts are central to effective planning and implementation of good forest management and wildfire prevention at the local level. To strengthen coordination with partners in this space and provide insight on the role of local conservation delivery in pre and post fire work, NACD serves as part of the Joint Forestry Team with NRCS and the Forest Service.
For districts interested in participating in these programs, or for landowners and producers interested in accessing program funding, please contact the local USDA service center for more information.