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Wildfire and drought resilience dollars often aren’t reaching rural communities, report finds

A satellite image shows a natural color view of active fire lines from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 11.
A satellite image shows a natural color view of active fire lines from the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, near Las Vegas, New Mexico, on May 11.

When major legislation like last year's bipartisan infrastructure law provides funding for federal programs, money isn’t automatically appropriated to communities. State and local governments have to apply for grants, write project proposals, and manage construction projects. And that can be challenging for rural areas with limited staff capacity.

The Center for American Progress published a pair of reports this month highlighting these challenges in the context of climate resilience, offering recommendations for how decision-makers can better design federal programs to be more inclusive of rural communities as disasters like wildfires and floods become more frequent.

“Those grant competitions require a tremendous amount of planning and information and technical documentation even just to submit an application,” said Mark Haggerty, a Bozeman, Mont.-based senior fellow at the think tank who authored the reports. “Often, that scale of the grants doesn't suit the needs of rural communities. So they're not even really able to apply.”

To illustrate this point, one of Haggerty's reports uses this year's wildfire season in northern New Mexico as a case study. Wildfires ravaged the region, but communities there were largely unable to get adequate resilience dollars through federal programs like the newly created Community Wildfire Defense Grant program. Haggerty said that smaller communities like that have often spent valuable capacity applying for federal grants in recent years only to get denied.

“Trying to access money to recoup those costs, which was promised by the federal government, has been exceedingly difficult,” Haggerty said. “There's a historic distrust between communities and the federal government.”

The other report examines FEMA's Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program, which is meant to boost resilience before disasters occur. Haggerty's analysis shows that, in 2020 and 2021, the vast majority of grants went to richer, coastal states, while the interior West received zero in the first round of funding and just a few in the second.

Haggerty suggests that the federal government assist small communities in application processes and help increase staff capacity at local and regional agencies. The Center for American Progress reports contain several other recommendations, including expanding grant eligibility criteria and prioritizing rural areas facing severe climate risks – including much of the Mountain West.

“The threats of natural disasters are not going to diminish, they're only going to increase,” Haggerty said. “Working with these communities to prepare them before that happens is absolutely essential.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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