Western Governors open Winter Meeting with wildfire, transportation sessions

Cybersecurity, wildfires and transportation topped the first day of the Western Governors' Association 2015 Winter Meeting in Las Vegas, Nev.

Western Governors, led by WGA Chairman and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, took part in the day's sessions, including Butch Otter (Idaho), Steve Bullock (Montana) and Brian Sandoval (Nevada).

Video: Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative

Some highlights from the day's sessions at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas:

Keynote: "Public & Private Sector Cybersecurity Cooperation"

Andy Ozment, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, kicked off the meeting with a keynote that noted the challenge of getting the general public to take the challenge seriously. “Realistically, people are not doing their due diligence – so one of the only mechanisms we have to encourage people to do cybersecurity is the fear [of a breach].”

Ozment also noted "The five questions CEOs should be asking regarding cybersecurity, including "What is the level of risk to the organization and the plan to identify those risks?" Read all the questions here.

Keynote: Health and Human Services Acting Deputy Secretary Dr. Mary Wakefield

Dr. Mary Wakefield, Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), noted that “one of the biggest rural health issues facing western states is opioid addiction and overdose” and thanked Gov. Sandoval and his wife, Kathleen "for their leadership on the opioid addiction and overdose issue." She added that HHS now supports "about 63 community health centers in Western states, serving just over half a million residents.”

Keynote: Interior Secretary Sally Jewell

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell opened her remarks by pointing out that the decision to not list the greater sage grouse was a "great example of an incredible success story, due to the work of each and every impacted state." She then took on additional issues, including:

On the growth in wildfires: "This last year, more acres burned since we began keeping records in 1960. Nearly 10 million acres by late November."

When asked how states can help with the issue of wild horses: "I would urge you to share statistics and stories on wild horses with us. Any story will help to raise the profile of this issue ... and we will continue to work every angle we have."

Wildfire Season 2015

  • Gov. Otter introduced the session by sharing a video about his annual Trail Ride in Idaho, which brings state, federal and private stakeholders to take a look at policy issues from ground level. Other session highlights included:
  • Robert BonnieUnder Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, USDA: "Our firefighting costs are close to $3 billion in 2015; $700 million was transferred to firefighting...Congress has an opportunity to fix this by ending fire borrowing and also increasing the capacity of agencies to prevent and respond to fire."
  • Gov. Bullock noted that in Montana, with Farm Bill authority, the state has multiple small-scale forestry projects. He and Under Secretary Bonnie discussed how they could create larger scale projects.
  • Janice SchneiderAssistant Secretary for Land and Minerals, Department of Interior: "We are looking very closely at targeted treatments for fuels and trying to get our minds around dealing more aggressively with the issue of invasive species. Especially invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass."

Western Transportation Infrastructure

  • Gov. Sandoval opened the session by emphasizing, "Transportation funding is an especially important issue for the West.  We need a permanent solution for maintenance of bridges and roads." Other session highlights included:
  • Victor MendezDeputy Secretary of Transportation: "We need to focus on innovation within transportation: How do we make it more efficient? How do we deliver services and products in a different manner?  How do we improve safety?"
  • Chuck ClowdisManaging Director for Transportation, IHS: “Trucks are important because they put people to work and move goods... We must have the proper infrastructure so we can move the goods around."
  • Juan AcostaAssistant Vice President, BNSF Railway, explained how the new transportation funding bill affects the rail industry.

Day 2 highlights:

State Healthcare Costs

  • Gov. Sandoval opened the first session of the day by noting, "Health care, especially health care financing, is a constant concern for our states." Other session highlights included:
  • Maria SchiffDirector of State Health Care Spending, Pew Charitable Trusts: "Our nation is facing an opioid epidemic. Drug overdose deaths now exceed car accident fatalities in the U.S."
  • Scott LaGangaSenior Vice President of Alliance Development, PhRMA: “Retail brand and generic prescription medicines along with pharmacy costs account for about 10% of health care spending in America today, the same percentage as in 1960."

Governors' Roundtable: My West

  • Gov. Otter opened the roundtable in which the Western Governors each shared their affection for and personal connection to the region. He talked about "cowboy ethics," noting, "The cowboy and the Westerner have pretty much figured things out. They know that rules can be changed, but principles cannot. They're guided by principles."
  • Gov. Sandoval spoke to the opportunities that exist in the West. He shared that he advises students, "There's a difference between doing something and being something. What is it that you want to do? What difference can you make?" when they consider future aspirations.
  • Gov. Mead also spoke to the breadth of possibilities available in the region, focusing especially on leadership. "When you are given an opportunity to do something for the betterment of yourself or your country, you should do it. Always have the duty to lead. Leave the world in a better place."

Policy Resolutions

The Governors announced the approval of resolutions on Foreign Visitor Preclearance, Transportation of Radioactive Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel, and National Forest and Rangeland Management.

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