Gov. John Hickenlooper's Wednesday tour of Summit County's outskirts showed him a bright spot in the doom and gloom of the area's fading forests - partnerships that have sprung up to tackle timber projects within reach. Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs led the forest health tour, which stopped at power lines in Straight Creek Watershed Protection Project by Dillon and the wildland-urban interface in Mesa Cortina, above Silverthorne.Gibbs explained that Summit County is "ground zero of forest health problems," but also highlighted important partnerships that have emerged in the midst of the pine beetle epidemic:• The U.S. Forest Service, under whose supervision more than 75 percent of Summit County falls, linking with Colorado State Parks. • Xcel Energy and Denver water contributing time, money and effort for on-the-ground mitigation projects. • Local homeowner's associations and private contractors stepping up to the plate. All to address potential problems with power lines, watershed, protection of homes and more.And as some of the projects have unfolded to meet goals, unintended benefits have shown up, such as opening areas as staging spots for wildfire fighters, said Howard Hallman of the nonprofit Greenlands Reserve land trust. "We've been able to use funding from the state with other funding and private help to come together to protect (the Straight Creek) watershed that's very important to us," Hallman said. State as a partner"Partnership" or "facilitator" are two words that could describe how Hickenlooper sees the state's forest health role in the future. With more budget cuts looming and organizational restructuring, changes could be afoot in the way the state handles the issue - though Hickenlooper didn't directly address how forest funding may be affected in upcoming months."The state can play a significant role as a catalyst" between entities, he said. He pointed to the efforts of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to "break down the barriers" between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior to address the nation's environmental and land concerns together. In a similar way, he hopes to "break down silos" in state government and encourage collaboration.
During the past three years, the state Legislature has made significant progress in supporting forest health with about 25 forestry-related bills passed, Colorado State Forest forester Paul Cada said. They range from loan programs to state tax breaks to income tax breaks for individuals addressing their own defensible space. During Wednesday's tour, though, Hickenlooper fielded a question about whether the state could have a more active role in providing economic incentives to private industry - logging, energy, creative uses and more - to prod progress in the forests along. Hickenlooper responded that there's a significant challenge to overcome first: keeping large lumber mills in business that are on the verge of collapse. He acknowledged that the forest's timber is "a huge resource and asset that no one seems to have a use for." He's currently trying to encourage using Colorado blue pine wood in a new judicial center, and has found the main challenge: Colorado wood is expensive, particularly compared to the federally subsidized version that can be shipped in from Canada. The Canadian product retails for 30 percent less than it takes to produce Colorado blue pine, Hallman said. "There's a lot of wood. This is a big problem. But there is no silver bullet," Cada said.