U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse on Thursday introduced comprehensive legislation that aims to help Western economies better recover from the pandemic while addressing long standing conservation, forest management and wildfire challenges on public lands.
The Boulder County Democrat’s 21st Century Conservation Corps for Our Health and Our Jobs Act is a mouthful and a big ask.
His bill would direct more than $40 billion toward wildfire prevention, bolstering the conservation corps to restore public lands, funding deferred maintenance on U.S. Forest Service land and delivering coronavirus relief for the country’s outfitters and guides. It’s one of the most ambitious public lands bills in recent memory.
(Neguse sponsored the CORE Act, which protects 400,000 acres in Colorado and passed the U.S. House in October 2019. The measure is stalled in the Senate.)
“There are underlying structural issues that relate to our outdoor recreation economy and management of our public lands,” he said in an interview, adding that his bill also addresses critical economic and unemployment issues erupting from the pandemic shutdown. “This bill certainly seeks to address those challenges in an innovative way. It’s important in this moment to go big and be bold with a comprehensive approach that addresses the confluence of all these different issues coming to the surface.”
Here’s some highlights of his legislation:
- $3.5 billion for the Forest Service’s hazardous fuels, fire-risk reduction program, which is funded at about $445 million a year, and $2 billion for the Bureau of Land Management’s hazardous fuels program.
- $6 billion for the Forest Service’s capital improvements and maintenance program, which also is funded at about $445 million a year. The agency estimates it has a $5.2 billion backlog of maintenance on roads and other infrastructure.
- $600 million for state and private forests programs.
- $100 million for Forest Service personal protective equipment.
- $5.5 billion for the USDA’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program that focuses on water infrastructure development.
- $150 million for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife habitat conservation program for private lands.
- $4.5 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART program that gives water efficiency grants to farmers and ranchers.
- $575 million for National Park Service programs.
- $6 billion for construction and maintenance at national parks.
- $9 billion for the Civilian Conservation Corps program to hire and train workers for public lands restoration while addressing unemployment during the pandemic.
- $2 billion for the National Coastal Resilience Fund to restore shorelines.
- $7 billion for direct payments to outfitters and guides enduring closures from COVID-19.
- Temporarily waives permit fees for ski areas operating on public land and waives fees paid by guides and outfitters.
The legislation’s unveiling comes the day after the U.S. Senate passed the Great American Outdoors Act. The bipartisan-supported GAO Act would deliver the allotted $900 million a year to the Land and Water Conservation Fund for improving outdoor recreation accession public lands and directs $9.5 billion over the next five years to deferred maintenance on public lands.
The American guiding industry saw bookings evaporate in March as the pandemic ground the economy to a halt. The decline in reservations by skiers, rafters, climbers and hunters lingered for three months and only recently have outfitters and guides seen a gradual return of customers, said Matt Wade, the head of policy and advocacy for the American Mountain Guide Association.
But even as outfitters ramp back up, they are incurring additional costs for protective equipment — think replacing all group tents with single-person tents — and seeing smaller guide-to-client ratios as they keep people distanced.
Many guiding businesses and outfitters saw business plummet 90% in the spring and the summer season is pacing to be about 50% down, Wade said.
Neguse’s relief fund would give outfitters the chance to apply for relief payments that would cover the gap between increased costs and declining revenues while keeping guides on the payroll.
“So when we pop out the other side of this, they are still able to provide the service the public wants, educating people in the outdoors and teaching people how to leave no trace and helping people have better experiences in the outdoors,” said Wade.
And Americans were finally embracing mountain guides in the last year. After years of struggling to match the vibrancy of the guiding industry in Europe and other countries, America’s ski, climbing and river guides were seeing record traffic in 2019 and the beginning of 2020, Wade said.
“Guide services were in demand like never before and then this virus hit,” Wade said.
Neguse’s bill is not the only bill bolstering the American outfitting and guide business. The Simplifying Outdoor Access for Recreation Act (or SOAR Act) would streamline permitting for guides across various land management agencies and allow guides to share unused days on a permit with other guiding outfitters.
“Right now more than any time in recent memory there is momentum behind improving the permitting system for all forms of facilitated recreation on public lands,” Wade said.
Brett Wolk, the assistant director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University, said Colorado’s wildfires in the last decade have been bigger and more intense than ever before as more residents explore and build homes in increasingly dry forests. Add in a warming climate, ecological shifts and the diversion of federal funds, and the threat of out-of-control fires is growing.
“Our management needs to ramp up exponentially and proportionally to meet those needs,” said Wolk, whose institute works to bridge the gap between forest science and on-the-ground management strategies.
The wildfire funding fix approved by Congress in 2018 goes into effect later this year, giving the Forest Service an extra $2 billion a year to fight fires. The cost of beating back increasingly larger wildfires has gone from 16% of the agency’s budget in the mid-1990s to more than half in recent years. The finding fix helps the Forest Service unravel that budgetary knot, but it doesn’t help the agency make up lost ground on reducing the dense timber that fuels wildfire.
“There is such a backlog of need for forest management and hazardous fuels management … and we throw so much money at fire suppression because we can’t flip that paradigm of changing our forest management and fuel reduction,” Wolk said. “Every dollar we spend on pre-fire fuel reduction has huge cost benefits when a fire does happen.”
Neguse is not creating new programs. He’s multiplying the budgets of a host of programs — like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration, the Every Kid Outdoors, the Vegetation and Watershed Management, the Landscape Scale Restoration, Urban and Community Forestry, the Firewise, the Regional Conservation Partnership programs and dozens more.
“These are existing line items that work very well … many with long and storied histories. They just sorely lack funding,” Neguse said.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a companion bill in the U.S. Senate and Neguse has enlisted support from counties in his Colorado district and a growing list of conservation, outdoor recreation and sportsmen groups. He said his bill “stands a good chance” as both Democrats and Republicans study another round of funding to help the country recover from the pandemic.
“How do we do that and — pardon the pun — see the forest through the trees,” he said. “How do we create a structural program that ensures that this recovery does more than help us survive but has lasting impacts? At the end of the day my hope is that Congress can provide the resources for western states like Colorado to not only survive this pandemic but thrive.”