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With wildfire season fast approaching, Michael Bennet hopes to secure $60B to help communities get fire safe

Wayne Patterson, left, talks into a walkie-talkie while holding a perimeter map with Mina Bolton for the Grizzly Creek Fire on Thursday, August 20, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Sen. Michael Bennet has focused on efforts to fight wildfires for a decade in Colorado, and over the years he has learned that effective preparation occurs at the local level.

“A few years ago I had a chance to visit Silverthorne, Colorado, to see a fire break that the community had completed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and Denver Water,” Bennet said Tuesday. “When the Buffalo Mountain Fire broke out, that mitigation work ended up saving $1 billion worth of homes and infrastructure.”

Bennet has also learned that there is bipartisan support to be found in those efforts.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the West are fearing what an increased risk of wildfire will bring to their communities in the years to come.

Bennet drew attention to shrinking budgets for wildfire mitigation in 2013, chairing a hearing in the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources.

In 2014 and 2015, he introduced and cosponsored bills to end a practice called “fire borrowing” — fighting emergency wildfires with U.S. Forest Service funds intended for other purposes. But those bills were unsuccessful.

In 2018, however, under a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Congress was able to pass legislation which ended fire borrowing by establishing a separate account for fire suppression.

On Tuesday, Bennet said the leadership of Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, helped get the fire borrowing legislation passed.

Simpson called it one of the most significant pieces of legislation he has worked on in Congress, telling the Associated Press the concept simply treats catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters.

“Fire borrowing was intended to be an extraordinary measure, but as fire seasons have grown more destructive it has become common practice — and has created a devastating cycle that prevents agencies from doing needed hazardous fuels removal or timber harvests, leading to worse fires,” Simpson said.

More needed

But Bennet on Tuesday said that ending fire borrowing has merely “stopped the bleeding,” and much more funding will be required in the years to come.

In December, Bennet received a letter from current and former members of Conservation Coalition, Western Environmental Law Center, American Forests, Forest Stewards Guild, Watershed Research & Training Center, Sustainable Northwest, Northern Arizona University, University of Oregon and Colorado State University.

The group recommended that the president and Congress, in partnership with governors, the Wildland Fire Leadership Council and Tribal governments, “convene a high-profile, bipartisan commission to elevate the need for improved forest and fire management nationally and identify innovative policy solutions.”

The group said addressing the challenge will require a bipartisan effort.

“And it will require an additional $40-60 billion investment over the next 10 years in federal, state, tribal, NGO, and private partnerships to accelerate action,” the letter stated.

Bennet agrees with their figures.

“I realize that $60B is a big number, but the cost of inaction is far greater, there is nothing fiscally conservative about paying through our teeth to recover from wildfires and to fight those wildfires, rather than investing on the front end.”

Reigniting efforts

Bennet and Simpson, along with Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat who represents Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, are now hoping to find more bipartisan support in introducing a $60 billion effort they’re calling the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act.

The act was included in President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan infrastructure package, touted as an effort to “create and sustain millions of jobs and reduce wildfire risk by supporting locally-led forest health and watershed restoration projects.”

Bennet said the inclusion of the jobs plan into the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act could help the jobs plan garner more support.

“(The Biden Administration) actually had the title of the bill in their proposal,” Bennet pointed out. “So I’m hopeful that this will be a way of building support for the infrastructure bill, including maybe bipartisan support for the infrastructure bill.”

And most importantly, Bennet said, the act will fund localized efforts to get communities prepared for wildfire.

“In our bill we’ve emphasized the importance of partnering with Western governors, land owners and local governments to get this work done,” Bennet said. “That’s the only way you get anything done in the West.”

Joe Neguse elected to chair subcommittee on national parks, forests and public lands

Colorado experienced a historic 2020 wildfire season, with the three largest fires in state history all occurring in the last year.
Chelsea Self, Post Independent

On Wednesday, Congressman Joe Neguse’s office announced that the he was elected to serve as chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands.

Neguse will replace Congresswoman Deb Haaland, who previously chaired the subcommittee, as she leaves to serve as the next secretary of the Department of the Interior.

Neguse, who serves Vail, parts of Avon and other areas of Eagle County, is the first Coloradan to hold the position, and the first African-American to serve in the role since the committee was formed 215 years ago.

“I’m so honored to be elected Chair of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee as we begin critical work to preserve our public lands, restore our forests and protect our communities from record-breaking wildfires,” Neguse said in a news release. “Colorado is home to diverse and rich ecosystems, and treasured public lands that make up over 36% of our state, including 12 national forests. Our state’s robust outdoor recreation economy also inextricably links Colorado’s lands with our economic growth. As a result, the issues discussed in this Subcommittee have a profound impact on the health and safety of Coloradans, our local economies and every aspect of our environment. For Coloradans to have a voice as our Subcommittee takes up issues surrounding public land preservation, environmental sustainability and wildfire mitigation is absolutely crucial. I look forward to the work ahead for our climate, our lands and for Colorado.”

As chair of the subcommittee, Neguse intends to pursue a “bold and comprehensive agenda” to protect America’s public lands, and will work closely with the Biden Administration and Haaland. In the early days of his tenure, he plans to shepherd a public lands package through the U.S. House of Representatives. He also plans to introduce legislation to establish a 21st Century Conservation Corps and champion major investments in wildfire mitigation, resiliency and recovery in the wake of devastating wildfires in Colorado.

Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse, who represents parts of Eagle County, has been elected to serve as chair of the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. (Liz Copan, Daily file photo)

Neguse’s priorities include:

  • Strengthening our dedication to conservation and supporting Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy: Legislation such as the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act would help ensure that 400,000 acres of some of the most pristine places in Colorado will be protected for future generations and would boost Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy.
  • Preparing and responding to wildfire: Colorado experienced a historic 2020 wildfire season, with the three largest fires in state history all occurring in the last year. As climate change continues to impact the Western United States, wildfire season has only become longer, necessitating more attention from Congress.
  • Continued support of the Land and Water Conservation Fund: Since its inception, the LWCF program has established over 41,000 parks — including Rocky Mountain National Park, Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests, Lory State Park and other iconic parks in Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District. Nearly 1,000 LWCF grants have leveraged over $147 million for local government and state park investments in Colorado. In the 2nd District alone, there have been 191 LWCF projects. With the historic passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in the 116th Congress, LWCF will receive full and permanent funding.
  • Addressing deferred maintenance: Given Colorado’s world-class recreation opportunities, ensuring our public lands are properly maintained is a top priority. As one of our country’s most popular national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park faces a significant maintenance backlog of $84 million. Our park employees are working hard to take care of this beautiful place, but they can’t do it alone.
  • Addressing climate change through public lands: America’s public lands are one of the best resources we have to respond to the climate crisis. These protected places help safeguard biodiversity by protecting important wildlife habitat and enhancing ecological connectivity; safeguard ecosystem services, such as clean air and water; and provide abundant opportunities for scientific research.
  • Making historic investments in the natural resource workforce: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unprecedented economic challenge to communities across the country. As Public Lands Chair, Congressman Neguse is committed to both providing economic relief and supporting the health of our public lands by making historic investments in the natural resource workforce.
  • Environmental justice: Justice and equality must be at the center of conservation and environmental policy. It is imperative that Congress ensure that all people have a right to clean air, water and a healthy environment.
  • Amplifying Native voices: The views of Indigenous communities are critical when considering public lands policy decisions.