Wildfire suppression funding of recent years could become permanent under new legislation

Bennet, Neguse seeking to formalize Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership

John LaConte
Vail Daily
While standing at the border of Rocky Mountain National Park, which sports the burn scar from the East Troublesome Fire, and the Mueller Ranch, Michael Bennet wished his Senate colleagues could be there to see the effects of land management.
McKenna Harford/

EAGLE — A temporary program to help wildfire mitigation efforts across the West could become permanent under new legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse.

The program could also help create more Colorado projects like the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership’s San Juan Project and the Northern Front Range Collaborative Watershed Resilience Project, which brought $3 million in federal assistance to Colorado in recent years.

Sen. Bennet, Colorado’s senior senator, and Rep. Neguse, who represents Vail and parts of Eagle County in the U.S. House of Representatives, are both Democrats, but the bill has found support among Republicans, as well.

Bennet spoke for Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, in introducing the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership Act of 2021 on Thursday. The bill seeks to make permanent the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Initiative, a program which was started under Obama but flourished under Trump. Since its inception in 2014, the initiative has supported 93 projects in the U.S.

A staff member in Bennet’s office said that while Bennet did not have a hand in creating the initiative, he quickly realized its usefulness in Colorado.

“He’s been trying to figure out how to expand that initiative, and make it permanent, and this bill is a way to do that,” the staff member said.

Blend of techniques

The Colorado projects that were funded by the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership used input from local partners and statewide and national groups like the Colorado State Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy.

The Northern Front Range Collaborative Watershed Resilience Project began in 2016 and has used a blend of techniques to combat wildfire. The Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests successfully burned 1,854 acres of wildland-urban interface in prescribed fires, and they also set up mechanical and manual logging on 2,172 acres of containment areas for future prescribed fire operations.

The federal dollars flowing into the Northern Front Range Collaborative Watershed Resilience Project “provides local logging and wood product industries with the confidence they need to invest in expanding their equipment and personnel capacities,” said Douglas Ochsner, president of the Fort Collins Conservation District. “This has allowed us to improve the pace and scale at which we address our forest management backlog in the county.”

The San Juan Project also used logging to remove thousands of trees from prioritized areas near Pagosa Springs to reduce the threat of wildfire for 500 homes, while using funding from the Joint Chiefs’ initiative to remove over-abundant plants and trees around Dutton Ditch, one of two water sources for Pagosa Springs.

“The area can now be safely treated with controlled burns, reducing the likelihood of catastrophic fire and protecting water quality for the community,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported in a publication about the San Juan Project.

Seeking local collaborations

While no Joint Chiefs’ wildfire mitigation money has yet been brought to Eagle or Summit counties, projects in the area are well-suited to receive funds from the initiative if it becomes permanent, a member of Bennet’s staff told the Vail Daily.

Recent projects in the area — like the Vail Intermountain Fuels Reduction Project in 2017 and Breckenridge’s Barney Ford Open Space Wildfire Mitigation & Forest Health Initiative in 2020 — have also used large collaborative approaches.

“Over the last seven years, with bipartisan support, the Joint Chiefs’ initiative has brought unique partners together to restore forests and improve resilience across public and private land, including in southwest Colorado and the northern Front Range,” said Bennet, who chairs the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources. “With the growing threat of climate change, and strong interest in the Joint Chiefs’ initiative, it makes sense to formally authorize the Joint Chiefs’ partnership and double down on our efforts to mitigate wildfire, restore habitat, and protect watersheds in the West. I look forward to moving this bipartisan bill forward in the Senate Agriculture Committee.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.