'We have a lot of work to do in repairing relations'
By TIM HEARDEN
WEAVERVILLE, Calif. -- More than 200 residents of this spotted-owl-weary mountain community crammed into a veterans' hall Dec. 10 to tell U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a thing or two about rural America.
Many in a standing-room-only crowd lamented the loss of timber jobs here during a two-hour town hall meeting. They blamed the Endangered Species Act protections for the owl and urged the U.S. Forest Service to expedite the thinning of fire fuels from forest floors.
"I've been here for a lifetime and traveled all over the back roads" of Trinity County, said Herk Shriner, a construction contractor in Weaverville. "I've seen it change. When I was a child we had 17 sawmills. Now we're down to one."
Shriner and others panned the recent decision to expand critical-habitat areas for the Northern spotted owl and proposed the government set up a "demonstration forest" that allows local timber companies to go in and clear fuel loads, which they said would help the owl and other wildlife.
The comments came as Vilsack was taking input on how to increase the "relevance" of rural America, which he said now represents only 16 percent of the U.S. population. He reiterated earlier remarks that rural America's biggest assets -- the food supply, recreational areas and energy -- can be overlooked by people elsewhere as the population shifts to cities and suburbs.
The secretary urged folks in the country to be more politically unified, arguing that internal fights such as between organic and conventional growers only discourage young people from getting into farming.
He placed plenty of criticism on the government, saying several times that it should be more responsive. He said he told President Barack Obama that it "takes too damn long" for agencies to make decisions.
"We have a lot of work to do in repairing relations between the government and people," Vilsack said. "I know how angry you are. I can see it. ... I want to do something about it."
Vilsack was beginning a swing through California after saying in a speech in Washington, D.C., he wanted to have "an adult conversation" with rural America, adding it is becoming "less and less relevant."
In that speech, he criticized farmers and ranchers for being overly concerned about regulation, citing the uproar over a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal to halve the level of dust allowed at farms and other businesses and to tighten child labor restrictions on farms. Those proposals were later scuttled.
Vilsack said in an interview Dec. 10 he had no objections to rural residents staying politically engaged when it comes to regulations. But he complained that farmers and ranchers were continuing to harp on proposals he said were clearly dead.
"The dust rule was never going to happen, and that was still the focus of conversations," he told the Capital Press. "My view is what we ought to be having is sort of what we had here tonight -- people coming in with ideas. Let's not worry so much about regulation but (asking), 'What is the solution to the problem?'"
He said such an approach "plays better" in urban areas, adding that more people would invest in rural America if there was less strife.
Responding to Vilsack's comments, the American Farm Bureau Federation said regulatory issues remain important to its members.
"We respect the secretary's opinion, but as our members make clear to us, these are still priority issues for us and we will keep pushing on them," Dale Moore, the AFBF's deputy director for public policy, said. "At one point when the cards are all laid on the table and it's clear we have prevailed in our policy thinking ... we will thank them very kindly and move on to the next priority issue."
Moore said his organization appreciates that Vilsack is obliged to relay the administration's views.
"As secretary, he does have a boss," Moore said, "and there may be occasions when the president suggests he needs to share some thoughts that may not be the most popular things out there."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=SECRETARY_PAGE