Joe Neguse calls for more wildfire mitigation resources to White River National Forest, other priority areas

Ali Longwell
Vail Daily
A scene from the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon in August 2020. Rep. Joe Neguse is pushing for funds from the Infrastructure Bill to be allocated locally to prevent future incidents such as this fire, which has caused years of impacts to the area.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily Archive

While wildfire mitigation projects are considered one of the best approaches to preventing and preparing against increasing wildfire risk, these projects require a significant number of resources, including manpower, equipment and, of course, funding — all of which can be challenging to secure and allocate.

This was the impetus behind a recent letter penned by Rep. Joe Neguse to the U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Frank Beum. Dated Sept. 21, 2022, the letter urges Beum to allocate wildfire mitigation resources from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to the White River National Forest as well as the western portions of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in “recognition of their critical economic, ecological and social importance.”

“As you may know, these areas are home to the headwaters of the Colorado River, the most heavily traveled east-west interstate highway in Colorado, and some of the most-visited recreational resources in the country,” Neguse wrote.

“As the Upper Colorado region and our nation continue to endure the ongoing impacts of climate change, including historic drought and larger, more destructive wildfires, we cannot afford to delay robust investments in wildfire mitigation to protect this region’s many resources and values.”

Congress recently passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which among many things, earmarked $50 billion to “protect against droughts, heat, floods and wildfires,” according to a White House press release. According to the Forest Service, this included $3 billion granted to the department for hazardous fuels work.

“As you work to deploy $3 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to reduce hazardous fuels, restore forests and grasslands, and invest in fire-adapted communities and post-fire reforestation,” Neguse wrote in the letter.

According to the Department of the Interior, $103 million from the Infrastructure Bill is also specifically allocated in 2022 for wildfire risk reduction efforts and spent in the following ways:

  • $80.9 million to “accelerating the pace and scale of fuels management work”
  • $19.4 million toward “accelerating the pace and scale of the Burned Area Rehabilitation” to support post-wildfire landscape recovery
  • $3.1 million to support climate-related research.

The allocation of funds into these three buckets was driven, according to the department’s release on the fund distribution, by its Five-year Monitoring, Maintenance and Treatment Plan to address wildfire risk as well as the Forest Service’s 10-Year Wildfire Crisis Strategy

“As the Forest Service determines the allocation of resources from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for high-risk ‘fire-sheds,’ Congressman Neguse is strongly advocating that the agency give priority consideration to the White River National Forest,” said a spokesperson for Neguse.

Neguse’s letter calls attention to several areas. This includes “high elevation forests in the Upper Colorado River Basin,” which he states are “perilously vulnerable to wildfire,” as well as the notable threat to land along and the infrastructure of Interstate 70.

“This summer, monsoon rains on the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar have caused I-70 closures through Glenwood Canyon as often as four times per week, severely impacting local and interstate travel and commerce. It is imperative that we allocate sufficient resources to reduce wildfire risk in this vital watershed and transportation corridor,” he writes.

Additionally, Neguse references the ski areas that sit within the National Forest in Colorado. These areas “are not currently included in the initial landscape investments designated by the Forest Service.”

“These recreational resources serve as economic engines for the entire state, generating billions of dollars in annual economic output and tens of thousands of jobs,” he added.

Urgency in Vail

Neguse’s letter was included as part of the Tuesday, Oct. 18, Vail Town Council packet, reflective of recent discussions by the council on how to keep up with and accelerate the timeline of its wildfire mitigation projects and efforts, as outlined in its 2020 Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

The most recent wave of discussions started at its Sept. 20 meeting with a status update provided on the Booth Creek Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project. This project is currently in the midst of a National Environmental Policy Act process, also known as NEPA. NEPA is an extensive process, which requires government agencies to review projects in full  — including public input — for any possible environmental and public health impacts.

On Booth Creek, the town alongside the White River National Forest and a consultant group, have engaged in the appropriate public feedback steps and fieldwork and now awaits the final technical reports before it submits a full assessment to the Forest Service for approval. Final decisions are anticipated by spring 2023.

However, the actual work won’t begin until resources can be allocated.

“What we need to do to be successful is to continue with the momentum that we have on current projects such as Booth Creek Fuels,” wrote Paul Cada, the town of Vail’s wildland program administrator, in an email to the Vail Daily. “We need to get that project into a ready-to-implement state and begin the implementation, hopefully in the next 12 to 18 months.”

At the Sept. 20 meeting, Leanne Veldhuis, the White River’s district ranger, said that while large-scale projects covering hundreds of thousands of acres are what’s needed in Eagle County to reduce risk, there are barriers to getting these completed.

“The issue throughout Eagle County is of course the wildland-urban interface and we have a lot of wilderness and roadless areas that demand more analysis in our NEPA process. It’s hard to get to a 100,000-acre project here without butting up against different types of land management designations that call for stricter analysis,” she said. “We need much more of it, many more acres. But even when we have the acres analyzed and ready to go, that implementation side is also slow to do. The NEPA process is just one side, there’s also the implementation side; it doesn’t matter if you have 200,000 acres ready to go if you can’t get it done on the ground.”

Vail Mayor Pro Tem Travis Coggin expressed a desire to “keep this ball rolling,” asking for ways to keep NEPA processes moving forward so that when resources are available, action can occur to prevent “catastrophic issues.”

“All it takes is a two-second lightning flash,” he said.    

It was this discussion and the long timeline that prompted the council to take another look at its Community Wildfire Protection Plan at its Oct. 4 meeting and to think more long-term to ensure these projects are completed in a timely fashion.

“Large wildfires and a changing climate have gained the attention of many in Colorado and across the nation. Our wildfire problem is growing faster than the systems and resources available to manage them,” Cada wrote.

It’s for this reason, he added, that the town needs to look further ahead.

“We need to start looking forward to the next projects so that environmental review can be completed, 2 to 5 years. What this looks like is a short, mid and long-term planning and implementation process. We have built very strong working relationships with the USFS that will be vital to maintain for long-term success. Implementation at this scale will take commitment from both the Town and USFS,” he added.   

From the town’s 2020 plan, it has already completed several actions including the completion of curbside evaluations on over 5,000 structures, an increase in its chipping program, the completion of the final areas of the Intermountain project, 20 acres of mitigation work at the Deer Underpass, 38 acres of broadcast burn on Booth Creek’s town-controlled land, as well as 5 acres of work on Intermountain private lots.

There are still several landscape-fuels treatment projects on U.S. Forest Service land that still need to be completed. These “landscape fuels” projects are identified as projects that would decrease the probability of high-severity wildfire events in locations with a high risk for massive damage to local watersheds and infrastructure.

In Vail, these projects include Benchmark, Vail Mountain’s western boundary and interface with the town, Davos Trail (where some NEPA processes have already been completed, and maintenance of treatment in previously completed projects in West Vail and Red Sandstone.

Completion and progress on these will require collaboration and partnership with multiple entities, something of critical importance in creating wildfire resiliency, Cada said.

“When we crafted the Community Wildfire Protection Plan, we intentionally included a broad and diverse stakeholder group including land management agencies, utilities, town staff, Vail Resorts, the business community and others,” he added. “Our investment in stakeholder relationships, as well as community outreach, will be critical in helping the community better understand the why.”

This has included conversations with Neguse and his staff regarding the wildfire risk and the need for funding on both federal and non-federal land, Cada said.

“We feel these types of efforts are effective in bringing awareness to the issues as well as highlighting the working relationships in place to accomplish these large-scale complex projects. We want to ensure that the congressional delegations understand not just the need, but also the solutions,” he added.

Neguse’s recent letter represents a push to bring funding and resources in a different way than traditionally allocated.

“Funding for effective mitigation has traditionally lagged significantly behind need. Recent investments at both the State and Federal levels are a promising sign of future improvements. Much of these federal resources so far have been promised to areas where wildfires occur more frequently but less severely,” Cada said.

However, Cada added that the High Country, including areas around Vail, has not seen as many wildfires. Yet, the risk for greater severity and impacts is significant as evidenced in the East Troublesome and Grizzly Creek fires.

On Oct. 4, Cada said that the equivalent of an East Troublesome event would be a fire, within the course of a day, “starting just west of Eagle, running through Vail and spotting over the top of the Gore’s and ending up in Silverthorne.”

“A fire of that scale has just immeasurable economic and ecological damage throughout the ecosystem,” Cada said. “And while wildfire is a natural part of our ecosystem, at that scale and that severity, the negative outcomes far outweigh anything positive that comes with that.”

It’s because of this potential that Cada said the model for resource allocation needs to be re-evaluated, as Neguse’s letter also called attention to.

“We ask that consideration be given not only to the potential of fire occurrence but also the impacts that high severity fires have on the landscape and the communities that rely on them. Because of the strong working relationships and progressive planning in place, the White River National Forest has chainsaw-ready projects that are in need of funding,” Cada said. 

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