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Governor Polis Announces Wildfire Prevention and Forest Health Management Grants for Colorado Communities 

Governor Jared Polis was joined by local and state leaders, legislators, first responders, and local forest mitigation groups on Monday in Evergreen, CO to give an update on the significant progress state, federal, and local entities have made on forest health and wildfire mitigation initiatives since the disastrous fire year of 2020. He took that opportunity to  award major grants to ensure progress.

In a regional wildfire mitigation approach, Chaffee And Lake Counties, have received a combined $1,000,000 in grants focused on forest health and wildfire mitigation in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. The awards are made to Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative  (RMMI):

  • RMRI Upper Arkansas – Chaffee County: Upper Arkansas Thrives – Landscape Level Resilience in Chaffee County, $500,000
  • RMRI Upper Arkansas – Lake County: Lake County CWPP Fuels Reduction Project, $500,000

“From very early on in Chaffee County’s prioritization of forest health and wildfire mitigation, we have recognized that our community is not an island. Specifically, we know that post-fire impacts coming from upstream could be as devastating as if they originated here. As a result, we have been collaborating with Lake County for several years now, and together, our combined territory was designated as a priority landscape by RMRI.”  said Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) Chair Greg Felt.

“This has helped drive funding our way while working from a shared playbook and similar Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP),” he added. “I am thrilled to have received this grant and am very pleased that Lake County did too. We will put the money to the best possible use.”

A map created by the Forest Health Council showing the Chaffee County fuel treatment priority areas.

“The Envision Forest Health Council is excited about the new funding announced by Governor Polis of $500,000 to Chaffee County and $500,000 to Lake County for wildfire mitigation,” said the Co-lead of Envision Chaffee County Cindy Williams.

“Both counties had the opportunity to apply due to our collaborative work on coordinated wildfire protection plans that prioritize treatment of areas with the most bang for the buck,” she added, “where treating roughly five percent of lands in both counties may cut the risk that wildfire poses to community-prioritized assets including lives, water, infrastructure and wildlife habitat by half.”

Over the last two years, the Polis administration has committed around $145 million in state funds and leveraged millions in federal funds for forest health and wildfire mitigation work to protect Colorado’s communities, critical infrastructure, and watersheds from future wildfires.

“Colorado now has a nearly year-round fire season and our administration in partnership with the legislature is stepping up to better support first responders and communities,” said Governor Jared Polis. “More work needs to be done to help protect our homes, our forests, and our air so we are continuing our efforts and committing ourselves to significantly expand our wildfire prevention work.”

The Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is moving $13.3 million for on-the-ground forest mitigation work and “landscape-scale projects” this year and $44 million dollars to protect and restore watersheds threatened by catastrophic wildfire.

Prescribed burns, both on public and private lands can protect against wildfires. Courtesy photo.

The Colorado State Forest Service also saw significant boosts to its grant programs to communities for fuels mitigation work, new funds for a state nursery to support post-fire reforestation, and investments to enhance state wildfire risk awareness campaigns.

“We are extremely excited to get funds and these conservation corps and Department of Corrections DOC SWIFT crews out to communities who are in immediate need of forest health and wildfire mitigation projects.  In many areas of Colorado there are projects waiting for funding or may not have the people power to get off the ground,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs.

“This grant is here to kick start these needed projects and place hand crews where they are needed to protect life, property, and critical infrastructure,” he added. “We appreciate the support of the Governor, legislators, our federal partners, and local and regional entities who are working hand in hand together on our forest health and wildfire prevention priorities,” he added.

Coordinated Approach to Forest Health and Resiliency

Williams outlined how the Chaffee County-Lake County collaboration has been developed to create resiliency across the region.

“This is an exceptional example of collaborative work by the Forest Health Council in Chaffee County and their engagement with Lake County,” she explained. “They followed the Chaffee County Wildfire Plan model to create similar treatment prioritization early this year, which is now helping Lake County also accelerate treatment – important considering they are upstream and as we know fire does not respect county boundaries.”

She added that in Chaffee County, the new grant funds will be administered by the National Forest Foundation in coordination with the Forest Health Council. It will be used to treat lands identified as the highest priority in the Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Treatment is expected to start this fall.

“The Funds are part of roughly $20 million dollars the Forest Health Council has raised to date with federal, state, and local Common Ground Fund Grants,” Williams added. “The National Forest Foundation is managing the majority of these funds through the Upper Arkansas Forest Fund — a mechanism created by the Forest Health Council to collate funds and manage treatment contracts across private and public jurisdictions.”

While Williams focused on the plan and the process, she could not keep her enthusiasm about the announcement totally businesslike.”[It’s] Exciting and impactful for sure. We appreciate the opportunity for funding that Governor Polis and DNR are providing to counties like ours and really appreciate the collaborative action happening here.”

Statewide Mitigation Emphasis with Long-term Benefits

Governor Polis and Director Gibbs discussed the importance of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources’ Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program (COSWAP) which has funded over $13 million in wildfire mitigation projects focusing on workforce development and landscape resilience. Within that, COSWAP’s Workforce Development Grant has invested over $6 million to support on-the-ground wildfire mitigation work by conservation corps or Department of Corrections (DOC) State Wildland Inmate Fire Teams (SWIFT), and wildfire mitigation workforce training.

Game Trail HOA Forestry Committee member Brett Ulrich trims branches at his property in preparation for Chaffee Chips. The homeowners’ association received Firewise USA designation in December for all of its work toward wildfire risk reduction in the large subdivision northwest of Buena Vista. Photo courtesy of Envision Chaffee County

The Landscape Resilience Investment program focuses on larger investments in cross-boundary wildfire mitigation projects with a shared stewardship approach. $7 million has been awarded to eight landscape projects across eight counties.

The Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program (COSWAP) within the Department of Natural Resources was launched by the Polis administration through the bipartisan SB21-258 to invest $25 million in targeted wildfire risk mitigation, prioritize and fund key mitigation projects.

COSWAP is designed to quickly move $17.5 million in state stimulus dollars to start on-the-ground work on fuels reduction projects and increase Colorado’s capacity to conduct critical forest restoration and wildfire mitigation work that will increase community resilience and protect life, property, and infrastructure. COSWAP has allocated funding through two grant programs.

1. The workforce Development Grant includes 41 Projects, 17 Counties, and 3,664 Acres. Three wildfire mitigation workforce training grants will support more than 150 people in receiving S130/S190*, S212**, and a prescribed fire training exchange.

2. Landscape Resilience Investment:  Eight projects spread throughout COSWAP’s strategic focus areas have been selected for funding. Projects range from $500,000-$1,000,000 and will be matched by $4 million in local, federal, or other state funding:

  • Larimer County: Pole Hill / Waltonia, $1,000,000
  • Boulder County: Phase 1: St. Vrain Forest Health Partnership Project, $1,000,000
  • Jefferson County: Jefferson County Wildfire Safe, $1,000,000
  • RMRI Upper Arkansas – Chaffee County: Upper Arkansas Thrives – Landscape Level Resilience in Chaffee County, $500,000
  • RMRI Southwest Colorado – Mancos Conservation District: RMRI SW Colorado – Northwest Mancos Priority Zone, $1,000,000
  • RMRI Upper Arkansas – Lake County: Lake County CWPP Fuels Reduction Project, $500,000
  • RMRI Upper South Platte – Jefferson Conservation District: Upper South Platte Landscape Resilience, $1,000,000
  • Colorado State Forest Service – Teller County: Teller County Forest Health and Resilience Project (TCFHR), $1,000,000

“The partnership between Colorado conservation corps and the Polis-Primavera administration represents the best of Colorado:  channeling resources into an efficient, proven solution that will protect the lives of millions of residents.  The COSWAP program helps hundreds of young Coloradans find their purpose through service while addressing the existential crisis of climate change,” said Scott Segerstrom, Executive Director of the Colorado Youth Corps Association following today’s event.

Clearing dead and diseased trees and underbrush makes an entire community safer. Courtesy photo.

In addition to making forest mitigation a priority, Colorado also has invested significantly in watershed protection- a key component of forest restoration. Approximately 80 percent of Colorado’s population relies on forested watersheds to deliver water supplies.

Senate Bill 21-240 appropriated $30 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board for watershed restoration and flood mitigation grants and statewide watershed analysis. The majority of this funding has gone towards post-fire restoration from the East Troublesome, Cameron Peak, Grizzly Creek, and Calwood Fires.

This year, Governor Polis in partnership with the Colorado state legislature also invested $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds to conduct wildfire mitigation work to protect watersheds, provide additional funds for DNR’s COSWAP program, and provide technical assistance and local capacity to secure federal funding for projects that promote watershed and forest resilience.

This spring, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced significant federal investments in forest management in Colorado. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy directs $18.1 million in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law investments to Colorado National Forests in 2022, and $170.4 million over 2022-2024. Several Colorado projects also secured $6 million through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) this year.

Featured image: This steep-slope cut-to-length equipment uses tracks and a winch to perform logging operations on slopes as steep as 70 percent. The U.S. Forest Service used this equipment for the first time in Colorado to harvest beetle-kill timber that would otherwise contribute to a heightened risk of forest fire in the Monarch Pass area (courtesy photo).

Editor note: * and **designates National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) training courses for basic wildland fire training and wildland fire chainsaw training.