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Ag secretary insists 'climate hub' plan won't duplicate existing resources

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack insisted Wednesday that a new program setting up seven regional "climate hubs" was more than just window dressing, as some questioned whether it might duplicate existing resources. 

The Obama administration announced the "executive action" on the heels of President Obama's State of the Union speech in which he vowed to act without Congress where necessary. The so-called "hubs" aim to fulfill one aspect of a broader climate change plan that Obama unveiled last year. 

The hubs would serve as clearinghouses for information and outreach about extreme weather across the U.S. Based at existing Agriculture Department facilities, the hubs aim to help farmers and rural communities fight climate change and adapt to weather changes. They would assess local climate risks, such as drought and wildfire, then develop plans for dealing with them, such as improved irrigation techniques. 

Republican strategist Brad Blakeman, though, said on Fox News that this is the kind of information that can be found in the Farmers' Almanac. At Wednesday's White House press briefing, one reporter also noted to Vilsack that many land grant universities already have agriculture education systems that do this kind of work. 

"It's not duplicative. It's focused," Vilsack said. He said the program would use USDA resources to "go deeper." 

He said the centers would do "risk analysis of crop production and of forestry, in terms of changing climates," figuring out where the vulnerabilities are in different regions and what steps should be taken to mitigate the risks. 

Asked how much this would cost, he noted the USDA has $120 million dedicated to climate research, and "this will add on top of that." 

"It will be a significant investment made in each region of the country, because of the importance of it," he said. 

Citing environmental changes such as longer fire seasons and intense droughts, the Agriculture Department said the hubs would help mitigate the unique implications that climate change poses for rural areas and the people who live there. The goal is to synchronize the federal government's preparation and resources with what other entities, such as universities, tribal communities and state governments, are doing to prepare for shifting temperatures. 

The seven regional hubs will be housed in forest service stations or government research labs in Ames, Iowa; Durham, N.H.; Raleigh, N.C.; Fort Collins, Colo.; El Reno, Okla.; Corvallis, Ore.; and Las Cruces, N.M. Three smaller, additional "sub-hubs" will be created in Houghton, Mich.; Davis, Calif.; and Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.