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Infrastructure money arrives in Colorado via U.S. Forest Service

Funds to be used for fire mitigation and watershed restoration
Trout Unlimited is in the process of identifying priority watersheds in the state which will determine how its allotment of money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is spent. (Durango Herald file)

A year has passed since President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to fund a swath of projects across the nation, and some of that money has begun to arrive in Colorado.

The U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday that it would be launching a $40 million watershed restoration initiative in partnership with Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit that works to conserve freshwater fish habitat.

“We were awarded this money in part because we have done a really good job in recent years of prioritizing watersheds and objectives around the west,” said Ty Churchwell, the mining coordinator at TU’s Durango office. “... I think what’s really important about this money is the way that we’ll be able to parlay that money and work in partnership with stakeholders, including the Forest Service, to identify projects and work collaboratively across the forest to really make significant improvements to habitat with this money.”

A news release from the Forest Service said that in recent years, Trout Unlimited has leveraged $20 million in Forest Service money to accomplish $64 million worth of restoration projects.

Drew Peternell, the director of the Colorado water program for Trout Unlimited, said the planning process is still ongoing with respect to how the money will be used. Seven million will be distributed nationwide in the first year, and he said Colorado will receive less than $500,000 in that period.

Although specific plans have not been finalized, Peternell said the money will go toward restoring abandoned mines, improving fish passage and removing culverts, and stream restoration projects.

“It is heartening to see the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s resources being put to good use,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited in the news release. “This agreement builds on a long and productive partnership between the Forest Service and Trout Unlimited. Together over the years, we have already restored more than 400 miles of important fish habitat, reconnected more than 700 miles of habitat by removing barriers to fish migration, and improved hundreds of thousands of acres of National Forest System lands. We are excited to continue and expand on this work over the coming years.”

Trout Unlimited began a new approach to conservation in 2021, identifying priority watersheds for restoration. Peternell said the organization is in the process of identifying its priority watersheds in the region, and said the money will be directed toward them in the next five years. He expects parts of the Rio Grande in Colorado and northern New Mexico to be included on that list, as well as the headwaters of the Animas and Dolores rivers.

“There’s a lot of attention right now on improving streams for fish as we face daunting climate scenarios,” Peternell said. “It’s promising that federal money is going to be made available to help us to make our fish more resilient to those scenarios.”

The Forest Service also announced a new, interactive storymap that can be used to track wildfire mitigation work. The agency selected 10 “initial investment landscapes” across the west based on high-risk fire sheds. While parts of La Plata County and surrounding counties fall into a “high risk fireshed,” it was not selected for the first round of investment in mitigation work. About 3.5 million acres outside Denver were selected, as well as 1.5 million acres in central northern New Mexico.

The Forest Service has identified high-risk firesheds throughout the west and selected 10, highlighted in green, for initial investment to fund wildfire mitigation work. (Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service)

Priority zones were selected based on a number of factors including exposure to major population centers, available local partnerships and the opportunity to invest in undeserved communities.

The work in-state will be a part of Colorado’s push toward fire mitigation, rather than suppression. It will include forest thinning and prescribed burns.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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