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Bennet says legislation could help fund fire mitigation efforts in Durango

Senator discusses potential benefit of Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act for Southwest Colorado
Sen. Michael Bennet talks with local fire and forestry agencies about fire mitigation Wednesday at the Lions Den on the eastside of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Sen. Michael Bennet met with local fire and forestry agencies Wednesday in Durango to discuss projects in the area that could benefit from the Colorado Democrat’s proposed Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act.

If included in the Senate’s upcoming budget, the act would secure up to a $60 billion investment in forests and watersheds spread over 10 years.

If approved, $40 billion would be allocated to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with states and tribes on projects to support forest and watershed restoration and wildfire mitigation projects. The remaining $20 billion would go toward funding local governments and collaborative groups for conservation, restoration and wildfire mitigation projects.

Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, speaks with Sen. Michael Bennet and local forestry agencies Wednesday at the Lions Den in Durango. Mitigation work has reduced the threat of wildland fire in the area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“We’re here to talk about what we need to do to protect our watersheds and talk about forest mitigations that have just been ignored for far too long,” Bennet said.

The discussion brought together the city of Durango, La Plata County, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Colorado State Forest Service, Durango Fire Protection District, Durango-based forestry collaboratives, timber industry and the Southwest Conservation Corps.

Much of the discussion with officials in Durango focused on wildfire mitigation projects.

“Fire knows no political jurisdiction. ... It’s going to take collaboration to do this,” Bennet said. “That’s why the bill is designed to have some of the money go to federal agencies and some of the money ... to state and local agencies so that we can all work together on this project.”

The west side of Durango has been threatened several times over the years with wildfire. Local officials who met Wednesday with Sen. Michael Bennet said additional mitigation work is needed. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Local partners talked with Bennet about wildfire mitigation projects that have been undertaken, and some of the challenges they’ve faced to complete those projects.

“No one-size-fits-all as far as fire mitigation treatment is concerned,” said Amy Schwarzbach, natural resource manager at Durango Parks and Recreation. “Some of the challenges we’re seeing behind the houses is limited access and terrain – steep terrain with very few vehicular access points.”

Speaking to the usefulness of the mitigation projects, Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty mentioned how helpful wildfire mitigation was when trying to direct the 416 Fire in 2018.

“If you get to a point where you ask, ‘Do these mitigation projects really work?’ The truth of the matter is that the 416 Fire stopped at Falls Creek and was turned back up into that area where that mitigation had happened previously,” Doughty said.

Local fire and forestry officials talk Wednesday with Sen. Michael Bennet about wildfire mitigation projects that have been undertaken, and some of the challenges they’ve faced to complete those projects. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

After hearing about ways entities are collaborating to get mitigation done in the Durango area, Bennet said he hopes more funding is on its way with the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act.

“Our counties and cities and water districts are already doing this work, as we’re talking about it today. It’s something that we historically didn’t do, and something we don’t fund,” Bennet said. “It is every bit an investment in infrastructure that building a road out here is. I would argue more so.”

njohnson@durangoherald.com

Sen. Michael Bennet, center, listens to Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District, speak about fire mitigation in the area that has helped reduce the dangers of wildland fire. Additional work is needed, he said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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