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.
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.”
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.”