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Durango, La Plata County look to new funding model for fire mitigation

Unique approach could tackle large-scale projects
The city of Durango and La Plata County are considering an approach to wildfire mitigation that would allow large-scale projects but would require up-front funding.

The city of Durango and La Plata County could be the first participants in a new way to pay for fire mitigation, but only if big questions can be resolved.

As the city and the county work to address the area’s wildfire risk, officials are considering an “intriguing” option, the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund, which would pay for large-scale forest treatment work and offer subsidies to private landowners who want to mitigate.

“It’s a great idea, but I have hesitancy about the obligation of the city of Durango,” said Durango Mayor Dean Brookie during a joint city-county meeting Thursday.

Typically, mitigation work depends on grants and government appropriations. But the SWIF would essentially borrow money up front to complete a larger treatment program in a shorter period of time.

In Southwest Colorado, the SWIF team proposed targeting key water infrastructure, watershed areas, and high-risk and private land in the wildland urban interface.

By collaborating between government partners, the forest treatment would be more cohesive across boundaries, instead of a patchwork approach.

“The Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund is trying to leverage the dollars we have in the area ... so that we’re working together as a community to address forest health and achieve our maximum impact in protecting our key resources and community members,” said Aaron Kemple, who manages the SWIF effort through the Mountain Studies Institute.

The SWIF team said the 416 Fire would have been 70% less costly if a large-scale mitigation effort had been done in advance, based on SWIF modeling of the fire’s economic impacts.

The first step in making the large-scale projects possible is creating an intergovernmental authority, with Durango and La Plata County as the possible founding members. The members of the authority would approve treatment priorities and expenditures.

The idea was alluring to Durango City Council members during a March 9 study session.

“The concept of being a role model for the entire state is an interesting concept,” said Councilor Melissa Youssef. “It’s appropriate that we would be given what happened with the 416 Fire.”

The SWIF would rely on funding secured through an entity such as the Colorado Water and Power Authority. The up-front funding model would allow more work to be done quickly with ongoing mitigation maintenance over time.

Some of the up-front loans would be paid back by private landowners through a cost-share contribution, potentially about 40% of the treatment cost on their land.

The members of the authority would also be responsible for repaying bonds. That was a significant concern for local officials: The project would be costly.

The member share would be between $350,000 and $500,000, depending on the scale of the mitigation program. That could go down over time if other members join and grants are approved, according to the SWIF team.

“The financing of this is really complex. And we’re still honestly trying to get our heads around it and the risk and what we’re actually being asked to do,” said La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton on Thursday. “We’re not there yet to say, ‘Yes, let’s go forward with this particular structure.’”

Durango Mayor Pro Tem Kim Baxter said the cost for a medium-scale mitigation plan is $450,000, and wondered if there are other ways to more efficiently use that amount of money for local mitigation efforts.

The rural Western Slope rarely gets prioritized enough for resources at the state level. That’s why going local is better, said Ellen Roberts, a former state legislator, during the March 9 presentation.

“$450,000 is a lot of money, but when you think about the cost of something that would take out Durango potentially ... you have to weigh those things out,” she said.

City and county officials said Thursday they need more information about the responsibilities and financial commitments for the entities in the authority.

The county also does not have legal authority to agree to be part of the SWIF authority – which is what new legislation, the Forest Health Project Financing bill, aims to fix.

The city and county have unanimously supported the bill, which was passed by the state House of Representatives and was being considered in the state Senate as of Thursday.

“We don’t disagree with the goal,” Porter-Norton said. “We are in a thought process about are we going to take on too much risk and if that risk is high or not.”

smullane@durangoherald.com

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