Closing out a summer marked by a record amount of ozone and wildfire smoke in Colorado, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has launched a tour to promote his legislation that advocates for investment in forest and watershed restoration.
Traveling to Denver, Clear Creek, Grand and Routt counties last week, Bennet promoted the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, a bill he introduced with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in April. The bill aims to invest $60 billion in forests and watersheds across the Mountain West and in mitigation efforts for wildfires.
“From wildfires to mudslides to drought, we’ve reached a critical inflection point in Colorado. Coloradans know that now is the time to make big, long-term investments in our forests and watersheds,” Bennet wrote in a statement to The Durango Herald.
While Bennet has focused on how many jobs the $60 billion investment would create, with an estimate of over “2 million good-paying jobs” in rural areas, some Coloradans are more focused on the impact it would have on their health and livelihoods.
In the past few summers, Colorado has dealt with its own major wildfires, like the Cameron Peak Fire in 2020, but this summer, it faced another issue: smoke from raging wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington.
Robert Sakata, a farmer from Brighton, said he didn’t see the mountains for two months because of the smoke.
“I think it was last year when I was out on the tractor and I could actually see ash falling on the tractor,” Sakata said. “Luckily, I guess, we had the masks because of COVID, but I was still wearing the mask out in the field because of all the ash that was in the air.”
Factors such as extreme droughts and heat waves exacerbated conditions and impacts. According to data from an air-quality tracking website IQAir, Denver ranked the second worst among major global cities for air quality.
Throughout the summer, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment continuously issued air-quality health advisories because of “out-of-state wildfires.”
Gloria Edwards, director of the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network, said wildfire smoke adversely affects people’s health, much more than prescribed fire smoke. Prescribed burns are planned wildfires, used to prevent wildfires by reducing fuels or to create a habitat for plants and animals, according to the National Park Service.
“It creates a lot more time management for people out here when, in the before times, we would’ve just – if it wasn’t raining or sleeting or snowing – we would have made plans in recreation in the West, and now you have to really modify a lot of things you’re doing dependent on ozone and air quality,” Edwards said. “You have to plan around it.”
For Coloradans who deal with asthma and other health conditions, waiting for the skies to clear will take longer than they might hope, considering the growing length of fire season in the Pacific Northwest.
Edwards said that’s why the federal government’s investment is crucial to the health of Coloradans, and if wildfires can be prevented in Colorado, it would make a difference.
The bill focuses heavily on forest and watershed restoration. A watershed is any area of land where precipitation drains into a common outlet, such as a river or a stream, according to the National Park Service. When wildfires occur, the forest root system, which serves as a filtration device for water, is damaged, causing water pollution, erosion, floods and mudslides, according to Water Education Colorado.
By restoring watersheds and managing forests, air and water quality will be improved because wildfires would be prevented, Edwards said.
“We can’t approach these ecosystems as a one-and-done treatment and all our problems are solved. It takes ongoing management and stimulus for us to keep managing these areas,” Edwards said. “These events are going to be more intense for longer and more frequently than our records have shown in the past.”
Sakata, who is a member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, appeared with Bennet during the tour last week and was pleased that researchers from Colorado State University admitted that past practices of putting out fires as they happened is not a useful mitigation strategy anymore, compared with other mitigation efforts such as prescribed burns and shoring up watersheds, as the bill proposes.
“Back in 2002, I was on Colorado’s Water Quality Control Commission, and that was when the Hayman Fire occurred in Colorado, and we got to tour some of the burn areas, and that’s when I really became aware of the devastating effects,” Sakata said. “Because of how hot these fires burn, the soil becomes hydrophobic and the water literally runs off of it, so you literally just kill the soil.”
As a farmer, Sakata said his crops have been adversely affected by both the direct and indirect effects of wildfires, hurting his source of livelihood. The soil becomes ruined if it is directly burned, not allowing crops to grow, and the smoke shades sunlight that is essential for photosynthesis.
“We can’t afford to have anything slow down that crop,” Sakata said.
However, Sakata is optimistic Bennet will listen to small-business owners, farmers and experts about such issues, like he did during the tour.
“I think the keyword is ‘partnership,’” Sakata said. “Those partnerships, whether it was the Forest Service or Department of Agriculture, and private landowners, and how best to manage. We can’t do it all, so it looks at prioritizing those areas that we can get the most benefit from.”
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a senior graduating in December 2021 at American University in Washington, D.C.