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A year ago, voters passed Chaffee County measure 1A, a .25 percent sales tax measure funding forest health and wildfire mitigation, supporting working lands, and addressing the growing environmental impact of outdoor recreation. Since then, a citizen committee has built out the program, Chaffee Common Ground, taking the ballot language and developing priorities and criteria by which applications for funding could be evaluated. Thanks to their hard work, we received 11 initial grant applications, and the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) was able to act on their recommendations on Nov. 19, awarding $660,000 in funding to local organizations.

This first round of applications was impressive, collectively leveraging local monies with matching funds by more than 7:1. That means that for every dollar of Common Ground funding appropriated so far, applicants have brought in seven dollars of matching money from outside sources for $7.1 million of initial impact.

To achieve healthier forests and address wildfire risk, $82,000 was awarded for the implementation of the new Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. With this funding, the Colorado State Forest Service and Envision Chaffee County will work to activate this plan for a safer future.

To preserve rural landscapes, $945,000 over two years was approved for three conservation easements totaling nearly 2,000 acres in the heart of Chaffee County. Central Colorado Conservancy is working to secure easements with landowners of the Centerville and Tri-Lazy W Ranches and with Arrowpoint Cattle Co. to preserve the irrigated agriculture, critical wildlife habitat, and scenic views afforded by these properties. Conservation of all three parcels will also protect the western border of Browns Canyon National Monument.

Also supporting sustained agriculture, $75,000 was approved for a new program inspired by conversations with our local ranching community. Community Conservation Connection will provide funding and management for termed conservation easements on larger county agricultural properties. This commitment for a specified period buys time for agricultural families to make conservation decisions and for our community to continue to innovate new mechanisms for supporting this key element of our heritage and landscape.

To manage impacts from growth in recreation, $110,499 was awarded for three projects that promote sustainable recreational land use, manage dispersed camping, and address human waste impacts in our most popular areas. The local organizations awarded this funding (GARNA, Southwest Conservation Corps, and Salida Mountain Trails) are collaborating with the Envision Recreation in Balance program to address issues in the Fourmile Recreation Area, Raspberry Gulch, and the Methodist-Arkansas Hills trails system, as well as draft a strategic plan for sustaining our popular natural resource areas for visitors and residents alike.

All of the funded projects are either immediately actionable or, as with conservation easements, already moving towards completion. This is just the beginning. As the BoCC liaison to Common Ground and the Co-lead of Envision Chaffee County, it is clear to me that we can expect more landscape-scale projects in the years ahead. In particular, there is tremendous groundwork underway to lead to major wildfire mitigation projects across jurisdictional boundaries, coordinating between USFS and BLM, the Colorado State Forest Service, and large landowners and subdivision homeowners’ associations located in the Wildland-Urban Interface.

For some voters, the Common Ground initiative was too broadly worded and raised concerns about accountability. Both the Common Ground Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the BoCC are committed to three elements with this program: transparency, accountability, and leverage. In terms of transparency, all meetings are noticed and open to the public, and we’ve tried to ensure that applicants understand the grant application process and selection criteria. As regards accountability, the application process was rigorous, all applicants had to provide metrics for success, all on-the-ground projects will have identifying signage, and the Common Ground Committee will honor the campaign commitment to an annual report to the community. As for leverage, the Common Ground Committee views its funding recommendations as investments and not just expenditures. Proposals were scored on a rubric of attributes, but a key criteria was the amount of outside funding or value that the applicants were brought to the table.

Over the next several months, the Common Ground Committee will refine the program in preparation for a spring application period. I want to thank this group for their dedicated commitment to the project. I also want to thank our three Subject Matter Expert boards, which were critical in establishing the proper funding criteria. Finally, I want to thank the citizens of Chaffee County for supporting this initiative and taking an intentional approach to securing our values for posterity. The future of Chaffee County will truly be built on Common Ground!

By Greg Felt

Chaffee County Commissioner