Colorado Legislature works to expand access to wildfire mitigation funds
FRISCO — A new bill making its way through the state Legislature might soon make it easier for lower-income communities and organizations to receive funding for wildfire mitigation projects.
The bill — which was sponsored by Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, among others — would modify the existing Forest Restoration and Wildfire Risk Mitigation Act, opening the door for more communities across the state to receive grant money for mitigation and maintenance work by lowering matching fund requirements.
“Over the course of our summer, we had numerous presentations from a variety of groups and governmental entities that talked to us about the different challenges they’re facing regarding wildfires,” said McCluskie, who also serves on the state’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee. “… We’d heard through some of the voices that there’s a need to expand the grant program, not only to lower-wealth communities, but also to allow for maintenance efforts as part of the grant application and to expand the types of entities that would be eligible to apply for funding.
“There’s more need out there, obviously, than there is opportunity. So we really wanted to strengthen the grant program by making it available to more groups, more communities and certainly for more purposes.”
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Currently, grant applications for mitigation work require jurisdictions to self-finance at least 50% of the project cost. If the new bill passes, the matching fund requirement would drop to 25%, presumptively expanding the number of Colorado communities able to afford risk mitigation.
In addition to lowering the cost-share threshold, the bill also would expand the number of eligible grant applicants — including fire districts, nonprofits and other groups engaged in fire-management activities — and would push back the grant program’s sunset provision from 2022 to 2029.
In introducing the bill last month, McCluskie pointed to mitigation work done in Summit County leading up to the Buffalo Mountain Fire in 2018 as proof of the necessity to expand the program.
“We put out a survey to specific stakeholders: fire districts, counties, municipalities, the Forest Service and other partners,” McCluskie said. “Of the 21 responses we received … everyone expressed the need for more funding for wildfire mitigation.
“We were blessed to have a fairly wet winter last year, so the 2019 summer was nothing like 2018. But as I spoke in testimony, look at our experience with the Buffalo Mountain Fire and how incredibly important that cleared area was up in Wildernest and how many lives that protected. When you can point to an example that clear, that relevant and that immediate, it heightens everyone’s awareness of how great the need is to do more to protect not only us in the mountains but others across the state.”
The program, administered through the Colorado State Forest Service, typically provides grants between $4,400 and $150,000. If the bill passes, more hands grasping for a piece of the pie could create an even bigger funding issue. The grant program doesn’t have a set revenue model and relies entirely on appropriations from the state’s general fund.
The state funneled $1 million into the program last year despite $3 million in requests. McCluskie noted that regardless of whether the new bill passes, officials are hoping to fill the program’s coffers with at least $3 million in 2020, though even that might not be sufficient to meet demands.
“At a minimum, we’re hoping to get $1 million again,” McCluskie said. “But $3 million ideally is what we’d like to see in the fund every year for wildfire mitigation efforts. We could easily argue the need is greater than that … but it would be a significant step forward.”
The bill passed through the state’s House of Representatives on Tuesday morning by a vote of 62-2. The bill is set to be introduced to the Senate next, and McCluskie is optimistic it could be signed into law sometime in the near future.
“We had a lot of support in the House, and I anticipate the same in the Senate,” McCluskie said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the governor sign the bill into law soon, hopefully in the next month.”
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