Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs highlighted forest protection during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
Gibbs, who’s taken part in high-level government briefings and fought destructive wildfires during 12-hour “midnight shifts” brought a unique perspective to the caucus.
The commissioner, former state legislator and certified wildland firefighter expressed concern for the health of the forest and urged members of Congress to provide more funding during the hearing, which centered on forest health, wildfires and habitat protection.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a transformation of our forest in this county and others around the state,” Gibbs stated in his testimony. “In Summit County alone, 146,000 acres of trees are dead — nearly half of all our pine trees.”
Dead trees left behind from the mountain pine beetle epidemic pose fire risks to people and infrastructure and need to be thinned or removed, Gibbs said. The challenge in the county, 80 percent of which is situated on National Forest land, is finding the resources to get the work done within the existing framework.
The Healthy Forest Restoration Act, a county levy tax passed by voters and a statewide grant program have helped complete “sorely needed” projects, but the work remaining in Summit County vastly outpaces the assistance being provided, he said.
The commissioner pleaded for more funding, “plain and simple,” he said. “The task of removing hazardous and fire-prone trees is daunting and state and local communities can only make a dent in this effort.”
The commissioner asked for the U.S. Forest Service to designate “emergency” or “critical needs” areas so they can be treated immediately in coordination with local governments.
Gibbs asked members of Congress to support the “Good Neighbor Authority,” which allows state foresters to do work on federal lands, and to permanently authorize “stewardship contracting,” which helps foster public-private partnerships.
“We urge Congress to support and foster forest health collaborative efforts,” Gibbs said.
He highlighted such Summit County programs as the Forest Health Task Force, the Summit County Wildfire Council and the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative, all of which call on community members to find common ground to complete projects.
Finally, the commissioner called for more support, training and equipment for local fire departments. Approximately 97 percent of wildfires in Colorado are contained at 100 acres or less by local firefighters — 62 percent of which are all volunteer, Gibbs said.
“The dire condition of our forests, the threats to our communities and resources — especially water — and the extreme drain on the federal treasury due to suppressing ever increasing wildfires demands that Congress come together for the nation’s well being,” Gibbs pleaded.
Gibbs said he really wanted to bring attention to Summit County’s collaborative wildfire model during his testimony.
“A lot of people have put a lot of time into being part of these collaboratives. They bring a lot of common sense to wildfire challenges,” Gibbs said. “It’s a model I think other communities should work to adopt.”
On Tuesday, Gibbs will continue his work representing Summit County in Washington, D.C., at a Senate agriculture committee briefing for congressional staff on wildlife issues.