Get ready for wild­fire sea­son now

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Mike Lester and Tom Fry

The middle of win­ter is usu­ally not a time when Coloradans think about wild­fires. And while they may re­al­ize that the snow we see atop the peaks now rep­re­sents much of our fu­ture wa­ter sup­ply, they may not re­al­ize how forests and fires im­pact this sup­ply.

Fires that burn with cat­a­strophic sever­ity can de­stroy our wa­ter­sheds and the nat­u­ral stor­age and fil­tra­tion sys­tems that Colorado forests pro­vide. This leads to runoff, mud­slides and clogged reser­voirs.

Now, and not at the height of wild­fire sea­son, is the per­fect time for pol­i­cy­mak­ers in Wash­ing­ton to act to pro­tect our wa­ter­sheds. We need na­tional re­sponses to bol­ster ex­ist­ing wa­ter­shed-pro­tec­tion tools in Colorado, like the Healthy Forests and Vi­brant Com­mu­ni­ties Act and the Colorado Wa­ter Plan.

A re­cent re­port by the Amer­i­can For­est Foun­da­tion (AFF) lays out two things that can help bet­ter pro­tect our forested wa­ter­sheds: We need the ef­fec­tive in­volve­ment of pri­vate landown­ers, and we need to en­sure we have the nec­es­sary re­sources to ac­com­plish th­ese tasks.

Acres at “high fire risk”

Us­ing data in part from the Colorado State For­est Ser­vice (CSFS), the re­port found that Colorado has more than 5.6 mil­lion acres at “high fire risk.” Over 2 mil­lion of th­ese acres are in im­por­tant wa­ter sup­ply wa­ter­sheds.

While the fed­eral govern­ment owns a ma­jor­ity of th­ese acres, al­most a quar­ter are in pri­vate hands. Th­ese lands of­ten ad­join each other. While the law may re­spect le­gal bound­aries, wild­fires do not. This is why it’s crit­i­cal we com­ple­ment for­est treat­ments on pub­lic lands with ac­tion on pri­vate land — and vice versa.

Like the rest of the state, the Up­per South Platte wa­ter­shed is a mo­saic of pub­lic and pri­vate land. This wa­ter­shed sup­plies wa­ter to 1.3 mil­lion Coloradans.

It also has been the site of sev­eral ma­jor wild­fires over the past 20 years. The Hay­man and Hi Meadow fires may be dis­tant mem­o­ries, but res­i­dents south­west of Den­ver can still see plen­ti­ful re­minders of what hap­pens when a fire starts in an un­healthy for­est.

The CSFS and AFF re­cently joined with other na­tional, state and lo­cal govern­ment agen­cies, re­searchers and non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions to form the Up­per South Platte Part­ner­ship (USPP).

The USPP’s mis­sion is to in­crease the re­siliency of our Front Range forests and com­mu­ni­ties. It works with both pub­lic and pri­vate landown­ers to re­store for­est con­di­tions and help pro­tect wa­ter sup­plies. For­tu­nately, as the re­port notes, th­ese landown­ers want to help.

The USPP is im­por­tant be­cause the fed­eral govern­ment can only do so much. The U.S. For­est Ser­vice, the pri­mary agency deal­ing with th­ese is­sues, is all but bank­rupt by wild­fire prob­lems.

$3 bil­lion to fight fires in 2015

Fight­ing wild­fires is ex­pen­sive. The For­est Ser­vice es­ti­mates it spent al­most $3 bil­lion to fight wild­fires on pub­lic and pri­vate lands in 2015. This was more than 60 per­cent of its to­tal bud­get, and more than three times what it was 20 years ago. But, as in seven of the last 10 years, this still is not enough.

As a re­sult, the For­est Ser­vice is forced to bor­row from other non-fire­fight­ing ac­counts to make up the dif­fer­ence. This strat­egy of rob­bing Peter to pay Paul in­ter­rupts pro­grams that pre-emp­tively re­duce risk and re­store for­est health be­fore the next fire strikes. This in­cludes pro­grams that ad­dress pri­vate forest­lands, like the USPP.

Be­fore Congress ad­journed for the year, leg­is­la­tors con­sid­ered a bi­par­ti­san re­form pro­posal. It would have treated the most se­vere wild­fires the same way as fed­eral bud­get rules cur­rently treat other nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, such as tor­na­does. This would give the For­est Ser­vice ex­tra flex­i­bil­ity to con­tinue fund­ing key pro­grams through­out the year.

Un­for­tu­nately, the pro­posal was dropped from the bud­get at the last minute.

Even though the high coun­try is cloaked with snow, now is the time for law­mak­ers to re­solve this im­por­tant is­sue. Congress needs to make it a top pri­or­ity early this year. Mike Lester is di­rec­tor of the Colorado State For­est Ser­vice. Tom Fry is the Colorado-based di­rec­tor of Western For­est Con­ser­va­tion with the Amer­i­can For­est Foun­da­tion.

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