Miss. Lawmakers Pen Letter to Ag. Sec. Vilsack Seeking Use of Available Unobligated Funds

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Mississippi Congressional Delegation today encouraged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to act swiftly to allow private forest landowners in Mississippi to access unobligated emergency forest restoration funds to overcome widespread damages caused by extreme drought and subsequent southern pine beetle infestations.  (See April 15, 2024, update below.)

In a letter to Vilsack, U.S. Senators Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) and U.S. Representatives Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), Michael Guest (R-Miss.), and Mike Ezell (R-Miss.) request assistance through the Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) and point out that all 82 Mississippi counties have been designated natural disaster areas by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In addition, the delegation supported the inclusion of language in the recently-enacted FY2024 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that directs USDA to use previously appropriated EFRP funds to assist landowners affected by drought-induced southern pine beetle outbreaks.

Recent preliminary reports indicate Mississippi has already lost more than 12.5 million trees, including nearly 80,000 acres of pine mortality and at least $96 million in timber losses.  

The delegation letter can be read in the text below or here.

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

We write to request your assistance to ensure private forest landowners in Mississippi have swift access to aid through the Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP), allowing them to carry out emergency measures to restore forest-related resources damaged by recent drought and subsequent insect infestations.

USDA has declared all 82 Mississippi counties as primary natural disaster areas due to last year’s extreme drought, which triggered a major pine beetle outbreak.  According to preliminary reports prepared by the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station and the Mississippi Forestry Commission, Mississippi has suffered nearly 80,000 acres of pine mortality, over 12.5 million dead trees, and conservative economic impact estimates indicating at least $96 million in lost timber.  Researchers anticipate the problem will worsen as the summer months approach, eventually affecting hardwood forests throughout the state. 

Our request is consistent with the will of Congress illustrated in the joint explanatory statement accompanying division B of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2024 (Public Law 118-42), which states:  

“The agreement notes that recent droughts have contributed to a dramatic increase in southern pine beetle infestations.  The agreement is concerned about the severity of observed tree mortality, as well as the economic and ecological challenges posed to private forest landowners.  The agreement emphasizes that the Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) was established to assist landowners impacted by natural disasters (including drought and insect infestations), and that previously appropriated funds are currently available to operate the program in fiscal year 2024.  Of the unobligated balances available for EFRP, FSA is encouraged to address assistance to landowners impacted by southern pine beetle outbreaks in counties designated by USDA as primary natural disaster areas due to drought in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2023 or first quarter of fiscal year 2024.  The agreement urges the FSA National Office to work in coordination with the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry agencies to expedite the delivery of program assistance to landowners in areas impacted by drought and insect infestation.”

Further, we understand that EFRP funding is currently available, as noted in USDA’s Explanatory Notes accompanying the President’s Budget request for fiscal year 2025, which states:  

“While the Budget does not request additional funding for EFRP it reflects more than $100 million in unobligated balances available to aid producers following natural disasters.”

The Mississippi Farm Service Agency (FSA) State Office, the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station, and the Mississippi Forestry Commission are working diligently to help affected landowners.  Should the USDA National Office receive requests for approval from the FSA State Office pertaining to streamlining or expediting the EFRP process, we ask that you prioritize those requests.    

Lastly, we respectfully request that you examine any and all options within your authority to provide advance EFRP payments to eligible landowners, in a manner similar to those provided to Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) participants.  Without access to proper financing up front, many affected landowners will be unable to take the initial steps to restore forest health and forest-related resources, which in turn will further impair, endanger, or materially affect future use of the land.  While we recognize the statutory language (16 U.S.C. § 2206) or implementing regulations (7 CFR Part 701) for EFRP do not explicitly provide for advance payment options, we note that such options are not specifically prohibited.  
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.  Please do not hesitate to contact us or members of our staff should you have any questions.  


UPDATE 04/15/2024:  Following last week’s delivery of a Mississippi congressional delegation letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday approved Emergency Forest Restoration Program (EFRP) signup in all 82 counties in Mississippi.  A 120-day signup period will run from April 15 to August 15, 2024.  

Requirements for participation in EFRP:

  • Restoration must be completed to meet the National Resources Conservation Service and/or State Forestry Agency technical standards. 
  • Participants must document and keep records of all costs incurred, including costs associated with personal labor, to complete the restoration activities.  
  • The minimum qualifying cost of restoration is $1,000. 
  • The program’s payment limitation is $500,000.

Administered by the USDA Farm Service Agency, EFRP is a cost-share program that provides financial and technical assistance to owners of nonindustrial private forestland (NIPF) to restore NIPF damaged by a qualifying natural disaster event.  All Mississippi counties were placed under a natural disaster status following severe drought conditions last summer.

EFRP financial assistance is not provided upfront, but is reimbursed after restoration is complete at 75 percent of the lesser of the actual costs incurred or allowable cost.  If an EFRP application is approved, the participant(s) is expected to perform restoration/conservation practices based on the FSA-848A, Cost-Share Agreement and Restoration Plan provided.

A USDA EFRP fact sheet is available here.  Potential applicants should check with their local FSA office for more information.