Sen. Bennet pushes $60B forestry bill in Steamboat as proactive response to wildfires

U.S Forest Service spent $100 million fighting fires in Routt National Forest over past five years

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., listens to Forest Supervisor Russ Bacon during a visit to Steamboat Springs on Tuesday, Aug. 24, to push his $60 billion Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act bill. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Fighting fires in the Routt National Forest in the past five years cost the U.S. Forest Service about $100 million. When looking at the whole Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grassland, the price tag rises to $190 million.

“That is 10 times the budget of the (entire forest and grassland),” said Russ Bacon, forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. “What I wouldn’t give for even 10% of that to be proactive instead of reacting to the fire environment that we have right now.”

While the overall budget of the Forest Service has remained relatively stable over the past decade, the costs associated with battling fires have significantly increased. More than half of the total Forest Service budget is being spent on fire suppression, said Michael Woodbridge, Hahns Peak, Bears Ears District Ranger for the Forest Service. It used to be less than 30%, he said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., is proposing a $60 billion bill that would invest in both the Forest Service to tackle a backlog of restoration projects and to state, local and tribal governments to fund local mitigation efforts.

“That sounds like a lot of money,” Bennet said, at a gathering Tuesday in Steamboat Springs with local forest officials and other stakeholders in Routt County. “We spent $60 billion in the last five years fighting fires, which is the most expensive forest treatment that you can possibly imagine.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., speaks at a gathering with forest officials, elected representatives and community members about his $60 billion forest restoration bill Tuesday. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

Bennet said the Forest Service is spending about $50,000 per acre on fire suppression, a much higher price than what it would take to purchase a large ranch in Routt County. The Strawberry Park Ranch, one of the last undeveloped parcels of land just north of Steamboat, is currently on the market with an asking price of about $33,000 per acre.

The mitigation work funded by the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act would cost between $1,500 and $2,000 per acre, Bennet said.

“It is an amazing thing that happens. When smoke from California makes it all the way to the East Coast, and people realize that I’m not just complaining, we’ve got a real problem on our hands,” Bennet said. “It’s been this toxic combination of climate change on the one end and a lack of federal investment on the landscape on the other.”

Bennet said President Joe Biden has included the bill in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that Senate Democrats are using a procedural measure to pass with just 50 votes. But there is a $5 billion down payment on this bill in the trillion-dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill the Senate passed last month, Bennet said.

At the gathering with local stakeholders, they made it clear to Bennet they are happy to take the money the bill would bring.

“Please send us the money, because one thing we have shown here is that we can cooperate with federal and state partners,” said Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan. “Give us the money; we’ll figure out how to spend it.”

Carolina Manriquez, forester with the Colorado State Forest Service based in Steamboat, agreed, saying the money from this bill needs to trickle down so they can take advantage of local partnerships.

“It’s all about leveraging the limited resources we have,” Manriquez said. “The local needs, the value that we have and of what we want to protect benefits millions of people downstream.”

But mitigation efforts help those wanting to use the forests as well. About 70,000 acres of popular trails near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area is currently closed because of the Morgan Creek Fire.

“We have been increasingly having these longer, larger public safety closures in place because of the extreme potential for fires that are really long duration,” Bacon said. “Morgan Creek Fire has been burning for a month, and there likely will be a closure associated with that ’til the snow flies.”

This puts more pressure on other local natural areas like the Flat Tops Wilderness Area, which Corrigan said he noticed is seeing much more recreation traffic this year.

Bacon said the problem really has to do with scale. While they may be able to treat as much as 10,000 acres of land in a forest now, fires are burning hundreds of acres each year.

“By no means is that a sustainable proposition,” Bacon said.

While projects near the wildland-urban interface, where construction of homes converges with wilderness areas, are important, Bacon said they also need to focus on large-scale projects within the forests. He can recall several fires that started more than 10 miles away from any structures but eventually burned the structures anyway.

The East Troublesome Fire actually started in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Bacon said, before it burned nearly 200,000 acres and destroyed 580 structures.

“We can’t be in the 500-acres-a-year mentality when Mother Nature is treating 500,000 acres,” Bacon said.

But before any money can come to Routt County or other forests around the country, the larger reconciliation bill needs to get unanimous agreement among 50 Senate Democrats that range from Bernie Sanders in Vermont to Joe Manchin in West Virginia.

“My gut is that we’re going to get it done, and we’ll make it as ugly as possible,” Bennet said, about passing the larger package including his bill. “I think we will get it because there’s just a pent-up demand out there after so many years of not doing it.”

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