WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week, Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, the chairman of the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, convened a hearing with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland during which he emphasized the need to create a budget that reflects the critical role of the Department of the Interior in helping families and businesses weather the extreme drought and wildfire conditions that are currently being exacerbated by climate chaos.
According to the Drought Monitor, over half of the United States is experiencing a historic drought, and over 95% of the West is now either abnormally dry or in a drought, which is among the highest percentages in the past 20 years. In addition, over 800,000 acres of forests and rangelands have been burned by wildfire over the past year, and the scale and nature of wildfires are quickly outpacing current federal assistance funding levels.
“This week’s hearing—our subcommittee’s first with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history—was a chance to focus on how we can work together to use the upcoming federal budget to prevent catastrophic wildfires and assist irrigators and other businesses make it through this extreme drought,” said Chairman Merkley. “Our budget must include resources to make our forests more resilient to wildfires, and to help farmers and ranchers survive a tough year. I thank all of our hearing participants for a productive conversation, and look forward to digging further into these topics, and more, as our subcommittee continues its partnership with Secretary Haaland.”
A rapidly changing climate is already causing unfathomable destruction throughout the west in the form of catastrophic wildfires and drought. While the West has always faced wildfires and periods of drought, climate change is making both challenges more intense, more frequent, and more extreme. To meet these challenges, Chairman Merkley urged Secretary Haaland to lean into renewable energy and climate science—and to provide critical assistance to communities to prevent, respond to, and recover from these extreme weather events.
Chairman Merkley continued his leadership on wildfire and forestry issues—which includes leading a recent letter to the Biden administration from colleagues in western states, advocating for a disaster supplemental to help communities meet their wildfire recovery needs—during his first round of questions. Chairman Merkley spoke on the need to ensure that fire suppression efforts don’t crowd out resources for forest health management projects aimed at preventing catastrophic wildfires, and also discussed other steps the department has proposed or should take in the upcoming year to boost communities’ climate resilience, including by jumpstarting programs such as the Civilian Climate Corps to help preserve America’s public lands and reduce the risk of wildfires, while also creating reliable, good-paying jobs in rural communities. Chairman Merkley has co-sponsored the 21st Century Climate Corps Act to create a service-focused conservation corps that will promote jobs, especially in rural areas.
In addition, Chairman Merkley discussed the need to direct more assistance funding toward tribes and producers in the Klamath Basin, which has been devastated by repeated water crises in recent years, and is currently struggling with historically extreme drought—the worst in more than 100 years. Chairman Merkley continues to work to secure resources for irrigators facing historic drought conditions in the Klamath Basin, Central Oregon, and other communities across the state. And throughout Chairman Merkley’s remarks and questions he suggested the need to ensure that tribal communities, who are on the frontlines of the climate emergency, have the resources for fundamental infrastructure—including reliable water infrastructure—as well as crucial support in mitigating the mounting impacts of our changing climate.
In keeping with the subcommittee’s commitment to tackling urgent environmental challenges, today’s hearing was also the first by the subcommittee where plastic water bottles were not offered to members and witnesses, in recognition of the plastic pollution crisis’ consequences on public health and the environment. Members and witnesses were notified in advance and encouraged to bring a reusable water bottle today and for future hearings.
A video recording of the hearing is available here.