On Nov. 15, 2021, President Biden signed into law the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, an historic investment in America’s infrastructure and competitiveness.
Since being signed into law, it has been instrumental in transforming the lives and livelihoods of farmers, ranchers, small businesses and communities nationwide. Through this landmark legislation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is bringing economic opportunity, telemedicine and distance learning to rural America, with investments in high-speed internet; protecting and making communities more resilient to wildfires by restoring forests and investing in the wildland fire workforce; and supporting innovative solutions to the many environmental, economic and social challenges faced in communities across the nation.
“President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is helping to ensure that many communities – too long left behind — have historic resources to address historic challenges, including by tackling the wildfire crisis and mitigating drought, repairing roads, bridges and dams, and connecting communities to high-speed internet,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a once-in-a-generation investment in rural communities and in just two years, the law’s historic resources have made communities across America safer, their landscapes more resilient, and their economies stronger, more equitable, and better able to compete.”
In the two years since the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law was signed into law, USDA has delivered funding to historically underfunded and backlogged programs — protecting communities, natural resources and supporting rural economies. The funding has also allowed for the development of new programs, which listen to local voices, include underserved communities, and focus on responding directly to community needs.
Reducing wildfire risk and supporting rural America
With $5.5 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, USDA is reducing wildfire risk, restoring healthy, resilient and productive forests, while improving economic, environmental and recreation infrastructure.
Listening to local voices, USDA has taken historic strides in fighting climate change, growing sustainable forest economies and supporting wildland firefighters
- Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and regular appropriations, USDA treated more than 7.5 million acres to protect communities, watersheds and critical infrastructure from wildfire over the last two years. Treatments prioritized work across 21 high-risk landscapes as part of the 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategyto reduce wildfire risk where it poses the most immediate threats to communities.
- In fiscal year 2023, USDA Forest Service set an agency record for acres of hazardous fuels treated, including a record for most acres ever treated with prescribed fire, exceeding the agency’s target by nearly 400,000 acres.
- Launched an interactive story map for communities to see wildfire risk reduction efforts across these 21 western landscapes.
- Launched the Community Wildfire Defense Programwith the National Association of State Foresters and the Intertribal Timber Council, committing $1 billion in grants to help private forest owners, Tribal communities, state forestry agencies and other at-risk communities reduce wildfire risk.
- Released a new National Reforestation Strategyto guide how the Forest Service and partners will address a four million acre reforestation backlog on national forests over the next ten years.
- Increased the pay of more than 20,000 federal wildland firefighters, established a Wildland Firefighter occupational series and developed an historical $569 million funding requestto Congress to reform wildland firefighter pay, invest in workforce housing, and vital health and wellbeing. Urgent congressional action is required to permanently authorize and continue the pay increase.
- Co-led the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commissionalongside the Department of the Interior and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The commission submitted its recommended strategies and policies to Congress on Sept. 27, 2023 to better prevent, suppress and recover from wildfires.
- Invested $55 million to improve recreation infrastructure, historic sites and cabinson national forests, supporting recreation economies and improving experiences for visitors.
- Funded $75 million in community wood and wood innovations grantsto expand wood product use and strengthen wood markets that support long-term, sustainable forest management.
- Distributed $466 million to 742 counties to fund schools, roads and other public services through the Secure Rural Schools program. The program was reauthorized through 2023 by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
- Invested $10 million to scale-up innovative bio-based product development to create new sources of revenue for America’s farmers using low-cost agricultural materials with low carbon footprints. One example is Soylei Innovations Inc., based in Ames, Iowa, which is developing a biobased rubber to allow paving with reclaimed asphalt and extend the longevity of road repairs. Soylei and partners have already paved half of their 30-mile goal in the first year of the project.
Connecting communities through high-speed internet
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has been helping to close the digital divide in rural America by building, improving, and acquiring the facilities and equipment needed to deliver high-speed internet through the ReConnect Program. High-speed internet connects rural communities to jobs, telemedicine and distance learning, farmers with new technologies and the real-time information they need to stay competitive, and helps small businesses develop their markets.
Since 2021, USDA has announced nearly $2.3 billion for ReConnect projects to expand high-speed internet access to hundreds of thousands of people through broadband loans, grants and loan/grant combinations in 35 states.
- Public Service Telephone Company received a loan of more than $36 million to connect nearly 13,000 people, nearly 300 businesses, 261 farms and 16 educational facilities to high-speed internet in Georgia.
- Pine Belt Telephone Company, Inc. received a loan/grant combination of nearly $50 million to connect nearly 16,000 people, 608 businesses, 52 educational facilities and 407 farms to high-speed internet in Alabama, including socially vulnerable communities.
- Panhandle Telephone Cooperative, Inc. received a loan/grant combination award of more than $43 million to provide high-speed internet to nearly 1,300 people, 36 businesses, 696 farms and three educational facilities in Oklahoma and New Mexico.
- Scott County Telephone Cooperative received a $25 million grant to provide high-speed internet to socially vulnerable communities in Virginia, including more than 17,000 people, 1,018 businesses, 37 farms and 49 educational facilities.
- USDA Rural Development is co-funding a Broadband Technical Assistance Pilot Cooperative Agreement to create one-stop technical assistance, and provide resources and support, to help Oregon communities leverage historic federal broadband investments.
Improving rural resilience
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provided USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service with $918 million for projects focused on previously underserved communities, and include building new dams, flood prevention projects and improving watershed infrastructure.
In the first two years, NRCS investments include:
- $616 million in 238 projects to restore watersheds through the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Programand rehabilitate aging dams through the Watershed Rehabilitation Programin 49 states.
- $268 million for 29 Emergency Watershed Programprojects in 17 states.
NRCS is also working to help communities protect their health and the environment by maintaining and upgrading community drinking and wastewater systems:
• Made nearly $30 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program available for fiscal year 2024 through the WATERSMART Initiative. NRCS has coordinated investments to improve water conservation and drought resilience across 16 western states, which complements BIL-funded efforts by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.