Numerous Colorado projects delayed as feds juggle budgets in era of monster wildfires
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — U.S. Forest Service officials said they’ve had to defer reviews of ski area projects, delay trail improvements and forest restoration work because of the high cost of fighting wildfires. This year, the agency projects a $470 million gap that ripples through the entire Forest Service budget.
More than a dozen important projects in Colorado were on the hit list, according to a new report released this week by the Department of Agriculture. Some of the projects were canceled altogether because their funding has been diverted to fighting wildfires.
The redirection of funds, known as fire borrowing, has increased as the fire season lengthens and the cost of firefighting goes up. In all, the agency spends 40 percent of its total budget fighting fires, up from 15 percent in the early 1990s.
During the last three decades, the average length of the fire season has increased by 60-80 days and the annual acreage burned has more than doubled to more than 7 million acres annually. In addition, growing housing development in forests has put more people and houses in harms’ way, which making firefighting efforts more expensive.
The USDA report came as Sen. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, both Colorado Democrats, push legislation that would change the way funds are allocated and free up emergency funds for wildfire response.
“As the severity and number of wildfires increases so too does the cost to fight fires,” Bennet said in a release. “We need to find a smarter, more efficient way to pay for the ballooning cost of fighting wildfires. This report shows important fire mitigation projects across the state that aren’t being completed. It’s going to end up costing us more money in the long run … And we should prioritize mitigation and preparedness efforts on the front-end,” Bennet said.
In Colorado, the following projects have been affected:
- Recreation Special Use permits for outfitter guides were deferred and ski area applications for four season use improvements were deferred.
- Emergency repairs on the Pike-San Isabel National Forests and Cimarron and Comanche National Grasslands were reduced to only critical repairs.
- A project to replace boundary signs that were destroyed in the High Park fire was canceled.
- Over 25,000 acres of ecosystem assessments, part of forest-wide inventories, were not accomplished.
- The Aquatic Nuisance Program (invasive species) with the State of Colorado was not funded.
- The Beaver Brookland acquisition project on the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest wasn’t funded.
- A $72,000 project to clear downfall and conduct related trail maintenance in areas affected by the bark beetle was deferred.
- Facilities improvement projects at the Lottis Creek Kiosks and the Crested Butte Forest Service housing were not completed.
- Abandoned mine mitigation work on the Akron Mine and Mill Site in Gunnison National Forest was deferred.
- Over $400,000 in watershed projects was deferred.
- Over $300,000 in wildlife management projects were delayed, deferred, or canceled.
Bennet and Udall have led efforts in Washington D.C. to reform the way wildfire fighting is funded and to devote more resources to wildfire mitigation efforts. He co-sponsored the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 which would reduce fire borrowing by allowing the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior to fight some wildfires using emergency funds separate from their discretionary budgets.
Udall said this report shows why Congress should pass his legislation, which treats wildfire like other major disasters and recognizes that firefighting efforts are extraordinary measures that should not degrade the agency’s ability to perform other essential activities.
“This report shows how successive severe wildfire seasons and the practice of ‘fire borrowing’ have left Coloradans progressively more and more exposed to the threat of modern mega-fires every year,” Udall said. “From forgone repairs to forest facilities — including signage destroyed in the High Park Fire — to deferred watershed projects, fire borrowing has undermined Colorado’s forest health top to bottom,” Udall said.