Wildfires are a big enough threat in the West that federal lawmakers are trying to get ahead of future burns by spending $60 billion to shore up forest, grassland and watershed health before fires can clog rivers, disrupt economies and end lives.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Jason Crow, both Colorado Democrats, on Tuesday introduced a bill, known as the Protect the West Act, that would establish a grant fund to help reduce wildfire risk, restore forests and watersheds, expand outdoor access and improve wildlife habitats.
“If it passed, we would reorient our focus on the condition of watersheds and … national forests in the West from a reactive, emergency-responsive posture to a posture where we’re making thoughtful and collaborative investments on the front end,” Bennet told The Colorado Sun.
Of the $60 billion, $40 billion would support federal partnerships with states and tribes to tackle the backlog of restoration and fire mitigation projects. The remaining $20 billion would be available to state and local governments, tribes, special districts and nonprofits.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Ron Wyden of Oregon, both Democrats, is designed to supplement, not duplicate or replace, existing federal funding, like the $8.3 billion set aside for Western water projects in the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.
In Colorado, preserving forests and watersheds protects water resources, safeguards public lands and waterways, and bolsters the state’s outdoor recreation industry, Hickenlooper said in a news release.
As proposed, the grant program would prioritize projects that create local jobs, assist communities transitioning away from fossil fuel extraction, serve lower-capacity communities, and are collaborative or use watershed data analytics.
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The grants could support county efforts to reduce hazardous fuels where wild areas meet cities and towns, called the wildland-urban interface, or fund local contractors to remove invasive species, like cheatgrass, Bennet said. The bill could attract businesses that make use of low-value timber or projects that help restore watersheds in the drought-plagued Colorado River Basin, which provides water to 40 million people in the West.
“Literally the entire Colorado River Basin flows through the national forests that we’re talking about,” he said. “The condition of those forests is the equivalent of the condition of our watersheds.”
This year’s bill is the third iteration of the legislation, which currently does not have Republican backing — a sign that the measure is likely to fail in a split Congress.
The next step is to secure more sponsors for the legislation, Bennet said. Although this version is mostly the same, Bennet said, it adds on more grant-writing and training opportunities to help underserved communities apply for money and allows the federal government to accept private contributions for the restoration fund. It also includes provisions for new pay-for-performance contracts to help ensure the projects deliver what they promise.
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In 2020, the same year the first version was announced, Colorado was hit by the three largest wildfires by acreage in state history: the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, both in northern Colorado, and the Pine Gulch fire in western Colorado.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that the U.S. spent nearly $67 billion on wildfires over the past five years, according to the news release. Continuing to pay billions for wildland firefighting and post-fire recovery is “penny-wise and pound-foolish,” Bennet said.
“It costs us 30 times more to recover from severe wildfires after they burn than to do the work to help restore the forest to begin with,” he said.
For Western states, underinvestment in conservation projects is an ongoing challenge, said Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. It limits the state’s ability to provide recreational access, handicaps efforts to attract federal-matching resources and makes it difficult to protect freshwater systems and wildlife habitat.
“Getting resources into communities at the level projected by this bill would make it one of the biggest investments ever in our forests, in Western landscapes, in Western communities,” Bennet said.
Goldin-Dubois helped develop the 2021 version of the bill as one of many stakeholders consulted in Colorado.
“From my perspective, at least, there are pieces here that support every part of economies across the West and across other regions,” he said. “I kind of feel like this is the sort of thing everyone should be supporting and endorsing.”