Bennet backs $60B bill to fund forest, watershed management

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet listens to rancher and researcher Wendy Thompson speak about the soil and water data she collects on her ranch. Bennet is pushing for the passage of the Outdoor Partnership Restoration Act, which would invest $60 billion in land management.
McKenna Harford/

Grand County rancher and researcher Wendy Thompson remembers when the Colorado River would flood her hay fields on an annual basis, but she’s pretty sure the last time it happened was in the 1980s.

On Tuesday afternoon, Thompson shared with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet how drought, fires, invasive species and more impact the Thompson Ranch, which sits along a portion of the Colorado River that runs perpendicular with Colorado Highway 9 outside Kremmling.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Thompson said of dealing with the varying amount of water each year. “It’s kind of sad, I think.”

Bennet, a Democrat, is hoping to address some of these effects of climate change and natural disasters on watersheds and forests with the $60 billion Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which is a part of the federal budget bill Congress will be working on this fall.

“It’s like (Thompson) said, we can’t do (land management) the same old way, which is not to say that we know what the new way is, but we do know that with less water there will be more fires,” he said.

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet speaks to rancher and researcher Wendy Thompson in her hay field on Wednesday. Bennet toured Colorado touting his Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which aims to protect forests and watersheds.
McKenna Harford/

The bill designates $20 billion for state and local governments, nonprofits, tribes and special districts to implement restoration or mitigation projects on private, public and tribal lands. Another $40 billion would go toward targeted wildfire mitigation and restoration projects near high priority watersheds and in the urban-wildland interface.

In addition to providing monetary support, the act would create new jobs focused on agriculture and outdoor recreation.

According to Bennet, the investment would be equal to direct funding for forest and watershed management the past five years combined.

He believes that recent natural disasters, including last year’s fire season, show the urgent need for the legislation and will push more members of Congress to support the effort.

“I do know that this piece will be extremely important in rural and red parts of the country, because every single farmer and rancher downstream will benefit from this work,” he said.

One program already at work in Grand County that would see a funding boost if the act is passed is the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, which is restoring land in the East Troublesome burn scar near watersheds to keep the water free of debris, mud and ash from floods or mudflows.

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet’s Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act has bipartisan support in Colorado, which Bennet hopes will translate into Congress.
McKenna Harford/

Ultimately, the goal of the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act is to support Mountain West economies by protecting forests and watersheds, while reducing wildfire risk.

Within Colorado, the act has broad and bipartisan support, including from Republican Grand County Commissioner Merrit Linke.

“This is a great first step in recognizing and acknowledging the problem that was created over 30 years ago,” Linke said in a statement. “The lack of proactive management and the ‘hands-off’ approach is now clearly having devastating effects on our communities, forest health and sustainable watersheds. This bill addresses this problem, provides much needed funding, and hopefully is the beginning of a new era in resource management.”

In addition to the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, Bennet continues to work on the SHRED Act, which will take fees paid by ski resorts on federal lands and designate that money to go back to the specific forest where the ski resort is located.

Bennet said it’s a key part of the forest management conversation to ensure that the forests seeing the impact of tourism get the money to care for that land in a sustainable way.

“It just makes so much sense given the way the forests work for that money to stay in the forests that are generating those funds,” he said.


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