Kicking off his first official trip to the West as commander in chief, President Joe Biden landed in Boise on Monday to tout his $3.5 trillion spending plan as key to combating wildfires and slowing climate change.
Biden visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho's capital. He's on his way to California, where he planned to survey wildfire damage. Noting that 5.4 million acres have already burned across the country this year — an area bigger than New Jersey — the president connected the blazes to recent hurricanes and other extreme weather events scientists have linked to the changing climate.
"The reality is we have a global warming problem," Biden said. "A serious global warming problem, and it's consequential."
Sitting next to Republican Idaho Gov. Brad Little, Biden said a solution to wildfires in the West could be found in his "Build Back Better" agenda, which aims to remake the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic through aggressive federal spending paid for by higher taxes on corporations and the richest Americans. But in his remarks, the president seemed to doubt how well his own philosophy applies to the changing climate.
"It's not like you can build back to what it was before," Biden said. "It's not going to get any better than it is today. It only can get worse, not better. It's not like we're going to not have more problems."
Little thanked Biden for encouraging wildland firefighters to start work early this year amid historic drought in the West, but the Republican governor turned his attention to the need for more forest management, including thinning trees and removing dry fuels that increase the intensity and destruction of wildfires.
"There's been a lot of great work done by your agencies, whether it's Shared Stewardship or Good Neighbor," Little said, referring to two federal programs that help make forests less susceptible to major fires. "But we know about a third of the forests are at risk of big, catastrophic fires, and we got a lot of work to do."
Grant Beebe, the Bureau of Land Management's assistant director for fire and aviation, welcomed Biden and thanked him for being the first president to visit NIFC in the center's 50-year history of coordinating the response of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.
"Extremely lengthy, intense, and damaging fire seasons like the one we're experiencing now reinforce the purpose of places like this," Beebe said. "In wildland fire, there's no one community, agency (or) tribal organization that has enough resources to manage all of its fires. Fires don't know jurisdictional boundaries, and we try to ignore jurisdictional boundaries ourselves."
While he's endorsed an effort by congressional Democrats to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill that would be historic in its cost and scope, Biden said every dollar spent to make the nation more resilient to extreme weather and natural disasters will save $6 in the future.
While much of the federal response to wildfires relies on Congress, which has the sole authority to authorize spending, Biden has taken steps to raise federal wildland firefighters' wages and direct other government resources to battle the blazes, including more federal aircraft and deploying National Guard troops.
In Boise, Biden also cited his recent use of the Defense Production Act — a law that lets a president compel companies to produce critical goods — to help a nonprofit in Oklahoma boost its production of fire hoses for the Forest Service.
In the hours after Air Force One lifted off from Boise, Idaho elected officials reacted to the president's visit. In a statement, Little emphasized the need for better forest management and defended his decision to meet with Biden while protesters demonstrated outside against new White House vaccine requirements and a handful of other grievances.
"Two-thirds of Idaho is public land managed by the federal government, and it is imperative we keep lines of communication open with our federal partners — right up to the President — on ways to build a more fire resilient range and forest ecosystem," Little said. "There is plenty I disagree with the President on right now, but today we came together to listen to one another and discuss solutions on wildfire."
Biden also thanked Idaho's two GOP senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, for supporting the bipartisan bill the Senate passed Aug. 10, authorizing $550 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, pipes and other infrastructure. Neither senator attended the event, with the Senate returning Monday from its summer recess, but in statements Crapo and Risch echoed Little's call for better forest management.
"President Biden's visit to Idaho today emphasizes the need for state and local input into federal forest management and firefighting decisions," Crapo said. "The Biden Administration should work with Congress, Governors and others with on-the-ground expertise to develop comprehensive solutions for appropriate forest management."
Risch said he hoped talking with fire experts and seeing the damage done by wildfires this year "will convince the President that we need to proactively and aggressively remove fuels from the landscape to protect our western forests from going up in flames."
"On the heels of a wildfire season that has burned more than 5 million acres, I'm glad to see the President giving his attention to an issue that impacts Idahoans year after year," he said. "Those of us in Idaho know that the federal government has ignored active forest management for too long."
Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, dismissed Biden's trip to Boise as a public relations stunt.
"President Biden and Democrats thus far have neglected the drought in the West, nominated radical and dangerous activists to his cabinet, and encouraged rabid environmental lawsuits to delay beneficial land management," Fulcher said in a statement. "President Biden's PR stop is inconsequential to Idahoans who are recovering from yet another season of devastating fires."
Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat, offered Biden a warmer welcome to the Northwest and promised to keep working in Congress to increase federal support for better fire prediction and monitoring technology, to make electricity and telecommunications networks more resilient to fires, and for forest management efforts.
"Wildfires are becoming increasingly dangerous and severe across Washington state and throughout the West," Cantwell said in a statement. "I am glad President Biden is visiting Boise to better understand the severity of the wildfires plaguing the West and his willingness to help us secure the resources our heroic firefighters and frontline communities need right now."
Before the briefing, Biden met with Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, a fellow Democrat who gifted the president a painting of the Boise Foothills and touted the city's efforts to combat climate change. In a statement issued after the event, McLean said she and Biden also made a video call to Monica Church, the granddaughter of former Sen. Frank Church, and spoke with her government class at Boise High School.
The Senate returned from its summer recess Monday and House panels worked to hash out the details of the $3.5 trillion spending package Biden has endorsed, but over the weekend Sen. Joe Manchin — a centrist Democrat from West Virginia who represents a crucial swing vote in the Senate — said he wouldn't support spending even half that amount.
After departing Boise, Biden continued to California where he planned to make remarks on wildfires before headlining a campaign event for Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., who faces a recall vote on Tuesday.