Legislators representing Summit County start push to restore federal funding to forest, public lands
On November 18, 2018, ten days after the most destructive wildfire in California history killed 85 people and destroyed over 18,000 buildings, President Donald Trump sent the following tweet:
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen. Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”
California owns only 2% of forestland in the state, while the federal government owns, maintains and manages 60%. Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, of which Summit County is a part, is 52% federal public land. In Summit County itself, over 80% of land area is federally managed public land.
Yet many federal forest management projects remain unfunded in Summit County and across Colorado due to cuts to the U.S. Forest Service budget over the past few decades. For the past two fiscal years, the Trump administration has consistently budgeted tens of millions less for wildfire prevention than what Congress ultimately allocated. The Department of Agriculture’s budget has been slashed by over 20%.
These facts led Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Boulder) to put Viki Christiansen, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, on the spot about forest management funding during a National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. The hearing was held to discuss the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management budget requests and priorities for next year.
Neguse opened his questioning with a fairly blunt assessment of where he saw the administration’s priorities, compared to those of communities like Summit in and near public lands.
“It is my sense that this budget pluses up accounts that are politically palatable to this administration, while defunding successful programs and ignoring some of the very real needs of our communities,” Neguse said.
Neguse used Summit County and its forest projects, such as significant land exchanges that would allow better local forest management of wildfire-prone forestland near populated communities, as his prime example of what he said were “ignored or unfunded” forest projects in his district.
Neguse also mentioned how Summit County residents have been paying hundreds of thousands of local dollars for the past two years to fund a forest service dispersed recreation crew for fire watch patrols, fire mitigation and public awareness in the Dillon Ranger District — all fire mitigation work on federal land that the federal government has traditionally funded. That is alongside backfilling USFS staffing budgets that are consistently underfunded.
“This is the cost that the county is bearing rather than the federal government,” Neguse said to Christiansen. “So while it certainly doesn’t surprise me that my constituents understand cost of prevention is far less than the cost of disaster, it is deeply concerning that communities in my district are taking on the financial burden of these programs and services.”
When questioned about whether she thought it proper for local communities to foot the bill for forest management, Christiansen said that she and her agency were firm in their commitment to work with local communities to be stewards of federal public lands. However, to the specific issue of Summit County and other communities forced to pay for fire mitigation on federal land, Christiansen blamed a 5% cut to her budget and budget issues overall. Christiansen said the cuts forced the forest service to allocate resources to critical or high priority areas.
In an interview with the Summit Daily, Neguse called the forest service chief’s answer “ludicrous,” given that Summit County’s half-dead forest is a veritable tinderbox threatening lives and homes he considers “high priority.”
Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier echoed Neguse’s sentiments, having fought to get federal funds back into the Dillon Ranger District for years.
“It’s not really new, it’s just outrageous,” Stiegelmeier said. “The forest service is being forced to try to function on half the funding they had 10 years ago when we had many times more visitors on the same public lands. It’s just irresponsible.”
Stiegelmeier added that for Summit County, preventing wildfire is a matter of survival, and residents will do what they need to keep their homes, towns and surrounding wilderness safe. That doesn’t mean citizens can’t be frustrated about spending the money or worried about their safety.
“From our local perspective, we feel we have no alternative other than to step in and help by funding these initiatives that, in theory, a good run forest service and reasonable funding from Washington would be providing,” Stiegelmeier said. “It’s not just spending money to make the forest better for recreation, but it’s fire prevention. It’s also an investment to save millions putting out wildfires.”
Neguse and Stiegelmeier both promised to keep up the pressure on federal government to do the right thing and fund their own programs, but urged residents to also comment and be part of the process. Neguse said that the subcommittee hearing is just a first step in a longer fight to restore federal funds to forests, and hopes to work with federal agencies to allocate resources to the communities, like Summit, where they are needed.
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