SALT LAKE CITY — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said he saved the best for last when Utah became the 50th state he visited as part of a pledge he made two years ago to connect with local farmers and foresters.
On Wednesday morning, amid a flurry of camera clicks, he inked an historic agreement with Gov. Gary Herbert that forges a new stewardship agreement between the federal agency and Utah for the caretaking of more than 9 million acres of forested lands in the state.
"This is a commitment, not just an agreement," he told the crowd gathered at the state Capitol.
"This is your home. You ought to be proud," he said, noting shared challenges and shared concerns.
When he became secretary two years ago, the former Georgia governor and veterinarian, 72, pledged to visit with farmers and foresters in all 50 states, listen to their message and take it back to Washington, D.C., for shaping how the U.S. Department of Agriculture runs its $140 billion budget affecting both forests and farmlands.
Perdue, born into a farming family in Bonaire, Georgia, became a U.S. Air Force captain, worked as a North Carolina veterinarian and served in the Georgia state Senate before his stint as governor for eight years.
During his visit, he had breakfast with Herbert and fielded questions from the media, but a planned tour to a watershed restoration area in Tooele County was canceled due to rain.
Instead, he attended a briefing at the Utah Department of Natural Resources and watched a video detailing Utah's success through the Watershed Restoration Initiative, which has improved habitat on nearly 1.6 million acres in a collaborative effort involving multiple federal partners, local conservation organizations and the state.
Perdue said such collaboration is essential to improving landscapes.
"One plus one equals more than two," he said.
Perdue later toured the Welfare Square operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and to get a firsthand look at the downtown Salt Lake City complex that got its beginnings in the Great Depression and features a 178-foot grain elevator, cannery, bakery and milk processing operation.
After the tour, he said, "Well, it's been amazing, obviously to see the collaboration between the state of Utah, the governor's office, the workforce development team as well as the faith-based community here. And the Deseret Industries tour has been amazing. Just a great example, I think, of biblical admonitions to help one another. And they do a wonderful job here."
Perdue added that such collaboration "is really what I think we need to be doing" nationwide "to really serve one another."
The finalization of the shared stewardship agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and Utah is modeled after a similar program in place in Idaho.
The program allows the federal agency to ink contracts with state forestry divisions to boost management of the nation's forests. Utah and the Forest Service have a goal to treat 1 million acres in five years.
"We are way behind the curve nationally," Perdue said, lamenting the amount of money spent on fire suppression rather than proactive fuels treatment.
In addition to Perdue, the national chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Vicki Christiansen, and Intermountain Regional Forester Nora Rasure took part in Wednesday's activities.
Christiansen, in particular, asked pointed questions about Utah's watershed initiative and indicated it was a model the rest of the country could look to.
Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, urged more Forest Service financial participation in the effort, noting it could use "five times … even 20 times" the money the federal agency devotes.
"We could be doing so much more."
Perdue conceded there needs to be more resources spent in upfront wildlands management and the agency is committed to its partnership with the state.
Smiling, he referenced an old Georgia saying. If you are asked when is the best time to plant a tree, the first answer is 100 years ago. The second answer, he stressed, is today.
"This is a great legacy that will teach us how to do better," he said.
Herbert and Perdue will likely discuss the state's petition to the Forest Service for a state-specific roadless rule, which was submitted in late February over the objections of multiple groups that assert the existing rule should stand.
Both dodged questions about its status on Wednesday.
Perdue's agency oversees management of the nation's forests, fire suppression, farmers and crop assistance programs, resource conservation and more.6 comments on this story
The USDA has called for an investment of $1.3 billion to boost the health and resiliency of the nation's forests, of which $390 million is for hazardous fuels reduction to reduce the threat of wildfires.
Utah just came off a record-breaking wildfire season in 2018 that charred hundreds of thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of cabins and other structures.
Nationally, the federal agency estimates more than 46 million homes, or 40 percent of housing units, are in the fire prone wildland urban interface and at risk to burn.
The agency has set aside approximately $1.7 billion for fire suppression with an arsenal that includes 18 air tankers and more than 100 helicopters.