Colorado Witnesses Share Experiences with Recent Wildfires, Mitigation Efforts
Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, today chaired a hearing on the connection between Washington’s shortsighted budgets and an increased risk for more frequent and larger wildfires across the country.
Bennet used the hearing to focus on the budgeting and policy decisions that guide the U.S. Forest Service’s work to mitigate and suppress wildfires.
The hearing, entitled “Shortchanging our Forests: How Tight Budgets and Management Decisions Can Increase the Risk of Wildfire,” brought attention to shrinking budgets for mitigation efforts that studies have shown can reduce the future costs associated with catastrophic wildfires. According to the Congressional Budget Office, every $1 in wildfire mitigation funding saves $5 in future disaster losses.
“Getting ourselves out of this vicious cycle will be no easy task. But catastrophic wildfire is literally an issue of life or death for many people in Colorado,” Bennet said in his opening statement. “We are doing them, and the country, a great disservice by not tackling this problem.”
“It is my hope that today’s hearing will help us consider innovative ideas to put us back on surer footing – a saner approach that dedicates the Congress and the agencies to putting in the work on the front end, before the fires do their damage,” Bennet added.
The hearing featured testimony from Davey Pitcher, president and CEO of Wolf Creek Ski Area in Pagosa Springs, and Sallie Clark, El Paso County Commissioner and Second Vice President of the National Association of Counties (NACo), among others. Jim Hubbard, the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Forest Service and former Colorado State Forester between 1984 and 2004, also testified.
“Another wildfire in southern Colorado is inevitable if conditions remain the same,” Pitcher said in his testimony. “When looking at the millions of acres of dead trees, we should resist simply seeing a chainsaw. Public outreach, timber sales, fuel reduction, controlled burns, and energy design should be used in conjunction to create an economically and environmentally sound forest health prescription that protects asset values on Wolf Creek Pass.”
“The Waldo Canyon Fire was a stark reminder of the need to be proactive in our efforts to protect our citizens, property, and resources,” Commissioner Clark said at the hearing. “We understand that no single effort is perfect, and we cannot end the threat of destructive wildfires. But it is important that we recognize and establish a framework for state, local and federal government agencies and the private sector, to work together to identify and manage our forests in a responsible way and to implement policies that provide the ability to get the job done.”
Bennet has been a strong advocate for wildfire mitigation efforts. In August, he introduced a bipartisan, deficit-neutral bill that would award competitive grants to states for priority wildfire mitigation and preparedness projects on federal, state, and private land. He was also successful in securing two key provisions in the Senate version of the 2013 Farm Bill that would improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires: his National Forest and Insect Disease Act, which would prioritize the treatment of national forest land that is suffering from insect epidemics, and his Permanent Stewardship Contracting Reauthorization Act, which would permanently reauthorize stewardship contracting, an important tool that allows the USFS to partner with private businesses and individuals to help thin trees and reduce fuel loads.
Bennet also led members of the Colorado delegation in successfully urging President Obama to designate the Black Forest and Royal Gorge Fires as major disasters. He was also instrumental in securing Emergency Watershed Protection funds for areas affected by last year's High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.