Southwest Colorado has been chosen for $50 million in additional funding for expanded forest health and wildfire mitigation efforts on public and private land.
The newly formed Rocky Mountain Restorative Initiative selected the forest project proposal, which encompasses nearly 750,000 acres along Colorado Highway 160, including portions of the San Juan National Forest and towns of Dove Creek, Cortez, Dolores and Durango.
“It’s a really great boost, and we expect to get a lot more fuel-reduction work done through this collaborative effort,” San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick said.
The RMRI is a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Wild Turkey Federation, along with 30 collaborative organizations, businesses and government agencies.
The entities will pool resources to fund local wildfire mitigation efforts and programs over a 10-year period, with a target of spending $5 million per year.
The money will be used to pay for prescribed burns, forest thinning and programs that support affordable and practical defensible space projects for residents and towns within the wildfire urban interface zone.
Protecting recreation areas, water resources and wildlife habitats is also a focus of the additional funding.
Southwest Colorado’s request for the funding stood out because programs and groups needed to carry out the mitigation plans already in place, organizers said.
“Collaborations already exist on the ground to get work done on a large scale. Also, there is an existing wood products industry and social license to utilize all tools, including prescribed fire,” said Cindy Dozier, board chairwoman of Club 20, a Western Slope advocacy group and one of the RMRI collaborative partners.
There is also a real need to reduce the region’s overstocked forests, which present the risk of unnaturally large wildfires that threaten recreation, water sources and communities.
Chadwick said the San Juan National Forest’s upcoming projects for prescribed burns, commercial logging and forest treatment have completed the required National Environmental Policy Act reviews.
The infusion of additional funding means on-the-ground work can begin sooner.
“We have signed NEPA in place, so the funding will not go toward environmental analyses,” she said.
Another focus for the additional funding is supporting programs that help private landowners and subdivisions thin forests.
RMRI aims to give more support to groups and programs such as Wildfire Adpated Partnership (formerly Firewise) that target private landowners who want to thin vegetation on their properties. Expanded outreach and education programs will also help connect landowners with grant funding and cost-share programs.
“Being chosen bolsters our efforts to reduce fire risks for our communities and forest,” said Danny Margoles, coordinator of the Dolores Watershed Resilient Forests, one of the collaborating groups.
“Restoring our forests to a more natural state through fuel reduction is safer for everyone. That way when fires do hit, they serve their historical role of burning at low intensity, and are less likely to become catastrophic.”
The region also was chosen because commercial logging in the San Juan National Forest has seen an uptick in the past two years, a key advantage for thinning large swaths of overgrown ponderosa pine forests. Montrose Forest Products began large-scale ponderosa pine logging operations in Montezuma and Dolores counties for its new mill in Montrose.
Aspen Wood Products restarted the excelsior mill in Mancos, and Ironwood south of Dolores recently renovated a former mill site into a plywood laminate factory using local timber. Small-scale mills also are contributing.
There is a cascade of positive economic impacts when forest management becomes a priority, including logging and milling jobs, trucking and forestry, said Mike Preston, chairman of the Southwest Basin Roundtable.
Coordinated efforts are underway to develop training programs for timber jobs through Pueblo Community College, local high schools and Fort Lewis College, he said.
The expansion of fire mitigation programs is expected to benefit private landowners and create jobs.
“There will be a need for more contractors that can help landowners plan and execute treatments to create defensible space,” Preston said.
The selection of the Southwest Colorado project is just the beginning of the planning process. Next steps include holding a series of meetings to determine funding opportunities and barriers that need to be addressed, refining proposals and developing a strategic plan.
The RMRI is made up of representatives from federal, state, private and nonprofit organizations.
Partners include National Wild Turkey Federation, U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, Colorado Timber Industry Association, The Nature Conservancy, Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado Department of Fire Prevention and Control, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Club 20, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Denver Water, National Forest Foundation, Colorado Water Conservation Board, Vail Resorts, Intermountain Forest Association, Great Outdoors Colorado, U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, Arkansas Basin Roundtable, Colorado Springs Utilities, Mule Deer Foundation, Southwest Basin Roundtable, Xcel Energy, Montrose Forest Products, Interbasin Compact Committee, Gates Family Foundation, American Forest Foundation and Blue Forest Conservation.
For more information, visit RestoringTheRockies.org.