Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, at the microphone, speaks during a visit to Heil Valley Ranch in Boulder County on April 11, 2022. Sens. John Hickenlooper, left, and Michael Bennet, third from left, Rep. Joe Neguse, second from left, U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, second from right, and regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region Frank Beum, right, also joined. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
Colorado will receive over $18 million this fiscal year from the federal government to treat thousands of acres susceptible to increasingly damaging wildfires, part of a strategy leaders hope will emphasize lowering fire risk before disaster strikes.
The Colorado Front Range is one of 10 landscapes selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service to benefit from an initial $131 million investment with funding from last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
In Colorado, money will head to nine identified projects in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and four projects in the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. It will treat up to 10,000 acres this year.
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“At this point, there is no margin for error. We must and we will continue to stay coordinated, because the reality is that these days, as everyone has said, fire season is now fire years,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said during a visit to Heil Valley Ranch on Monday, with trees still blackened from the 2020 CalWood Fire on a hillside behind her.
“Climate change is making the fire seasons more intense, as our firefighters deal with hotter, drier conditions and more extreme fire behavior. The increased frequency in urban areas is impacting more homes, businesses and communities every year,” she said.
Colorado faced a record-year for wildfires in 2020 with the CalWood, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires. In December, the Marshall Fire burned over 6,000 acres and destroyed entire neighborhoods in Boulder County.
Colorado also faces harsh, ongoing drought.
“It is all the more reason and motivation for us to take wildfire mitigation and resiliency seriously,” Rep. Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District, said during the press conference with Haaland.
Climate change has increased the risk of dangerous wildfires in Colorado, and it has contributed to a drought in the Southwest that has lasted more than two decades. Rising concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere, largely due to human activity, have caused many parts of the state to warm by an average of more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels.
Haaland said the financial investments enabled by last year’s bipartisan legislation will facilitate a “collaborative, multi-jurisdictional approach” to reducing wildfire risk. Wildfires, after all, do not discriminate between land managed by the county, private citizens, the Forest Service or the National Park Service, and experts say the best approach is informed by all land managers.
Those projects are about reducing the grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves and fallen pine needles that increase the chances of a catastrophic wildfire, forest supervisor for the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests Monte Williams said.
“It’s about fuel,” he said. “And not just the fuel that’s standing up, but about the fuel that is actually laying on the ground. For a long time, we thought all we needed to do was go thin the forest, and that would create a place where the fire would hit, slow down and stop because there would be nothing left to burn. The truth is we recognize it’s a lot more than that.”
In addition to forest thinning, Williams said prescribed burns are crucial in wildfire mitigation. It’s a similar strategy that he said prevented the 2020 Cameron Peak fire from spreading on two of its largest days. In that case, it was coordinated treatments on local, state and federal lands that stopped the fire in its tracks.
“The actual results of this have already been shown,” he said of the type of projects the incoming money will fund.
The beginning of a long process
U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said it is necessary to combat the scale of recent wildfires with an appropriately large response. A 10-year strategy from the Forest Service calls for the treatment of tens of millions of acres across the country. This fiscal year’s investment will begin the implementation of that ambitious strategy.
“This is an opportunity for us to come from a place of want into a place of have,” Moore said. “For a long time, we’ve known what to do, but we have not had the ability to do it at a scale that made a difference on the landscape.”
Sen. Michael Bennet said there’s still a chance Congress could pass a reconciliation bill — what was known as the Build Back Better Act — that has $27 billion in additional investments for wildfire risk reduction. That would be the largest investment into forestry in United States history. Build Back Better was stalled after holdout from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
“That may or may not pass now,” Bennet said. “But what we’ve been able to do this year, with the 5.6 (billion dollars) we’ve been able to put in the bipartisan bill, is demonstrate that the country, for the first time, really recognizes the scale of the challenge that we have.”
It will take much more money to implement the full 10-year plan, but Bennet said the financial puzzle is well worth it, comparing an estimated $50,000 per acre cost to fight a wildfire versus a $1,500 per acre to do mitigation work.
“I am optimistic that we will figure out how to do it over the long haul,” he said.
Sen. John Hickenlooper also attended the event.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was slated to join the visit to Heil Valley Ranch with Haaland and members of the congressional delegation, but he is quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.
The other regions that will benefit from this initial investment are in Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.
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