Anteia McCollum/Idaho Capital Sun

The breadth of Western issues handled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is wide, but in his address to Western governors on Tuesday in Coeur d’Alene, U.S. Secretary Tom Vilsack focused on issues Idaho and the West faces every day.

Issues like longer, hotter and drier wildfire seasons without the workforce to fight them.

Like ensuring ranchers have the ability to process their livestock. Like bridging the urban-rural divide when it comes to food deserts, where grocery stories are harder to come by.

Vilsack, along with Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, spoke about a variety of issues Western communities face on the first day of the Western Governors’ Association’s annual meeting.

Vilsack spoke of solutions reached through teamwork between state and federal governments to improve the quality of life of those living in Western states. Becerra highlighted the work the Department of Health and Human Services and state governments have done to improve the lack of health care access in rural areas and address mental and behavioral health needs across the West.

 The threat of Western wildfire

With wildfire plaguing Western states, and a firefighter labor shortage on top of that, President Joe Biden increased the minimum wage for federal wildland firefighting forces to $15 an hour. Firefighters can also expect to see increases in annual salary of up to $20,000.

“We have to recruit and retain firefighters and those working in the Forest Service,” Vilsack said. “And that did require us to look at our compensation system and our classification system to send a message of respect to those who fight fires.”

Vilsack acknowledged a responsibility for the USDA to work with state and local governments on reforestation and improving forest health, especially after wildfires break out. Those projects are supported with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, as well as through Good Neighbor Authority partnerships. Idaho has five Good Neighbor Authority partnerships with agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management meant to restore landscapes across the state.

What the USDA is doing to help farmers, ranchers

Vilsack said the USDA is working to help states increase the processing capacity of the livestock industry by expanding markets, reducing inspection fees and funding grants to increase processing capacity. He also said to reduce the rising costs of agriculture, states should encourage their private sectors to participate in precision agriculture to use resources more effectively and efficiently.

Eventually eliminating food deserts is another goal Vilsack said the USDA is partnering with states to reach. Through the implementation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and providing more funding for schools’ nutrition programs, Vilsack said this will increase access for families in rural communities and food deserts to healthy food.

Increasing health care access in the West

Several governors at the annual meeting were concerned about the decreased access to health care, especially for rural communities, after the public health emergency declared during the pandemic ends. The expiration date for the public health emergency is Oct. 13.

Becerra said there’s “a clear sweet spot” when it comes to working with Western governors to increase health care access in rural communities through telehealth and expanded care for behavioral and mental health.

“The future is telehealth, and it’s here to stay,” Becerra said.

Another way health care is being expanded by the agency is through the implementation of harm reduction programs that provide care options for those using drugs. North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said fentanyl poisoning is incredibly stigmatized and the use of tools like fentanyl strips, which detect fentanyl, are unlikely to be supported by those who see taking drugs as a moral choice.

The recent launch of the 988 National Suicide Prevention lifeline was also discussed as a part of the expansion of mental health care. Becerra said while the lifeline will save many lives, it isn’t quite up to the quality of help it should be because of the inability to pinpoint the caller’s location like 911 operators can.