A tangle of congressional squabbles, federal bureaucracy and outside interests often stand in the way of healthier forests, a group of state and county leaders told U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner during a wildfire summit in Colorado Springs on Saturday.
The 30-person group of wildfire experts, land managers and county commissioners voiced concerns over fire mitigation and flood prevention projects, which often require federal backing and encounter obstacles in Washington.
Both senators pledged to help remove some of those obstacles this year, following recommendations presented in a report on Saturday. Bennet, a Democrat, commissioned the report in 2014 and returned to Colorado this year to hear the findings - some of which were new, while others pointed to long-standing problems with federal funding. Bennet invited Gardner, a Republican who was elected in November, to join him at Saturday's summit.
The senators picked an ideal day to visit a county that has relied on federal aid to help clean up from post-fire floods. El Paso County on Saturday was a whirlwind of hailstorms, winter weather watches and tornado warnings, and heavy rains tested the strength of several federally funded debris nets and sediment basins around the Pikes Peak region. After the summit, Bennet toured Gen. William Palmer's Glen Eyrie castle, which presides over a massive, reinforced stream bed backed up with a metal debris net at the mouth of Queens Canyon.
But the urgency to stem the tide of floodwaters in El Paso County often barely trickles into Congress, where making the legislative body understand the needs of the West can be challenging, Bennet said. While Congress has struggled over the past two years to rework how the U.S. Forest Service pays for fighting wildfires, funding for wildfire prevention projects has fallen by the wayside, members of the summit told the senators. When wildfires burn, the government can cut red tape to siphon funds and resources to counties, but the process snares when counties need federal aid in the aftermath of a wildfire, the group said.
"Wildfires don't know the difference between state, federal and private lands," said Dan Gibbs, a Summit County Commissioner who worked on the report. But the quest to get funding to fight fires and clean up after them can toss local and state officials in a federal labyrinth of approvals and regulations. The group urged the senators to help streamline both processes and help create a guide to federal funding for counties hit by severe wildfires.
The group highlighted a few examples of post-wildfire recovery issues that will require fixes from Congress:
- U.S. Forest Service policy requires that foresters keep mitigation project costs as low as possible, meaning that cheaper work is favored where fire hazards are higher.
- Watershed restoration projects, like those done in the Pike National Forest and Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, are stalled for months when emergency federal funding gets stuck in Congress.
- Every year, El Paso County grapples for federal aid to help with post-fire flooding, something that is not covered by wildfire disaster money under federal law. The Stafford Act, which approves funding for federally declared disasters, does not consider wildfires and subsequent burn-scar flooding to be part of the same disaster. Only a change to the act would allow flood recovery efforts to receive money under the same disaster declaration as a fire.
- Some mitigation projects get funding and approval, only to run aground when out-of-state environmental groups sue land management agencies. One such mitigation project in the Pike National Forest - which had the backing of local agencies and environmental groups - was recently derailed by a lawsuit from WildEarth Guardians, an advocacy group based in New Mexico.
While neither senator had solutions to many of the issues raised, both asked questions about how each could be fixed. Bennet was particularly concerned about the Forest Service's low-cost mitigation practices, and wanted to know if the issue could be a problem across the West. Both he and Gardner repeatedly alluded to ending "fire borrowing," a term referring to the Forest Service's current practice of using money set aside for fire prevention to fund efforts to put fires out.
"We are going to get that resolved here this year - I think," Gardner said.
Wildfires are on the nation's mind in a way they haven't been before, therefore putting Congress in a better position to enact change, Bennet said.
"This is the moment," Bennet said. "We've got a great argument to make about setting new priorities - a moment to reorient the conversation in Washington around fire prevention and mitigation rather than waiting until fires are here and stealing money (from other programs)."
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0198