A charred hillside in Arapaho National Forest west of Colo. 125 less than 12 hours after the East Troublesome Fire burned through the area in October 2020. (Thomas Cooper/Special to Colorado Newsline)
A bill introduced in Congress this week by Colorado Democrats would allocate $60 billion in federal funding for efforts to protect vulnerable forests and watersheds and mitigate wildfire risk throughout the West.
“As wildfires intensify, Colorado’s residents, economy and fundamental way of life are in jeopardy,” U.S. Rep. Jason Crow of Centennial, the legislation’s House sponsor, said in a statement. “It’s time to act now to fight the worsening effects of climate change and protect our families and communities.”
The Protect the West Act, modeled on similar legislation previously proposed by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, was introduced in both chambers of Congress on Tuesday. It would provide $40 billion to be administered by the Department of Agriculture for “restoration and resilience” projects in forests, grasslands and rangelands, and another $20 billion in grants to local governments for similar efforts.
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An advisory council made up of representatives from other federal agencies, states and environmental and industry groups would make recommendations on how the funds would be used. Supporters say the program could create over two million jobs as federal, state and local governments work through a backlog of projects on public and private lands, aiming to reduce wildfire risk by thinning trees, creating fire breaks and other risk-mitigation strategies, as well as helping recovery efforts in burned areas.
In 2020, the Colorado State Forest Service estimated that more than 2.4 million acres in Colorado are are “in urgent need of treatment” to reduce wildfire risk, at an estimated cost of over $4.2 billion.
I want to start by apologizing to my colleagues, because leading up to this farm bill, I’m going to be a broken record … about the 1,200-year drought we’re facing in the West.
– U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado
In a statement, Bennet said that Colorado’s watersheds and forest ecosystems “are under threat — not only from climate change, but also consistent underinvestment from the federal government.” He introduced the Senate version of the Protect the West Act on Tuesday with fellow Colorado Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper and Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, as co-sponsors.
The 2023 federal farm bill, an update to the country’s agricultural policies and spending programs passed once every five years, could represent the best chance for the resiliency funding to become law in a divided Congress. Supporters say that it can be up to 30 times more expensive to recover from wildfires in a sensitive watershed than it is to prevent them.
In a hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on Wednesday, Bennet said he’ll urge his fellow members of Congress to “do more preemptively and proactively” to reduce fire risk and adapt to a warmer, drier climate.
“I want to start by apologizing to my colleagues, because leading up to this farm bill, I’m going to be a broken record … about the 1,200-year drought we’re facing in the West,” he said. “It’s hard to hear those words and kind of get it in your head. But for our farmers and ranchers and producers in the Rocky Mountain West, they’ve never seen anything, obviously, like this, in more than a thousand years.
“All of the water infrastructure that we’ve built, the assumptions that we’ve made, are assumptions that we really can’t make going into the future,” Bennet continued. “And it is creating in our producers a real sense that we’ve got to look at our federal ag programs root and branch to understand how they can better serve the people that we’re trying to serve.”
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