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Local forests may end up faring better than expected during these uncertain times.

With Chaffee County sales tax revenues posting stronger collections than anticipated during the pandemic, the Chaffee Common Ground Citizens Advisory Committee will consider whether to recommend additional funding to strengthen forest health and reduce wildfire danger.

Similar to reports in local municipalities, county sales tax collections through the August reporting period are 13.31 percent higher this year compared to 2019, according to the county finance department.

A recommendation and approval by the Chaffee Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) would fully fund the Methodist Front fuel break and move the completion date for the Coyote Valley Road fuel break up by one year.

The projects were included in the BoCC’s July approval of the program’s 2020 grant package that invests $450,753 in 10 local  projects this year, plus an additional $400,352 in 2021 and 2022. The committee chose a conservative total amount due to the uncertain economic impacts of COVID-19, said Common Ground vice-chair Rick Hum.

The uptick in revenue prompted the committee to discuss changes to forest health allocations at their next meeting set for Monday, Nov. 16 at 9:00 a.m., said Hum. Both forest health projects are in top treatment priority areas identified in the Chaffee County Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The Methodist Front project connects to the 2019 Decker Fire burn area and extends across the mountain’s foothills between Salida and Poncha Springs, and up to Poncha Pass. The committee will consider recommending $180,000 in additional appropriations that would fully fund the two-year project. Common Ground’s investment is matched by a $366,310 RESTORE Colorado grant, as well as cash contributions from both towns.

The Coyote Valley Road fuel break across from Hecla Junction provides safer firefighter access in the event of a wildfire in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness to the west, improves egress for residents and visitors, and protects structures in the surrounding area. The committee will consider recommending earlier funding so the project can be completed next year instead of in 2022.

Investments in 2019 had a strong agricultural focus due to timely opportunities to protect rural landscapes through conservation easements. Hum explained that forest health opportunities ranked very well this year, but they were not funded as requested due to economic concerns related to the pandemic.

“Additional funding in this category will provide a balance in investments over time as outlined in the ballot language that created the Common Ground program,” Hum said.

Planned investments to-date total $2,664,934 allocating 38 percent for forest health; 56 percent for rural landscapes and 6 percent for recreation management.

To attend the meeting, go to chaffeecounty.org and click on virtual meeting information in the right-hand column on the homepage.

Created when voters approved a 0.25 percent sales tax increase in 2018, Common Ground supports locally based programs and projects through a grant process that leverages revenues to achieve the highest impact. To date, grants awarded include matching funds that will bring nearly $9 million to the community. Visit chaffeecommonground.org for more information.

Featured image: Smoke from the Decker Fire on Methodist Mountain balloons into the air above Salida in Oct. 2019. Photo by Jan Wondra.