Ag, wildfire issues reinforce seasonal snowfall necessity

Looking back through the events of last week, we had a number of agricultural groups at the Capitol. I was very honored to receive the Pinnacle Award, the top legislative award from the Colorado Farm Bureau, and I was invited to speak with the Rocky Mountain Farmerís Union membership about current legislative issues and bills. The Colorado Association of Wheatgrowers also held their legislative day.

While the vast majority of Coloradoís population is urban, itís important for all legislators to know that the agricultural industry contributes $40 billion to Coloradoís economy and supports 170,000 jobs.

Although the snowy weather played havoc with plane schedules, itís great to see moisture at home. On the flight Friday, the parched nature of the state was all too apparent looking out from the planeís window. A winter wildfire of about 800 acres in the southeast corner of the state broke out last weekend, another sign of just how dry things are in Colorado.

This week, Iíve several bills in committee, two on the topic of wildfires. Through the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission and stakeholder meetings since the commissionís hearings, we have a bill establishing parameters for state-initiated prescribed burns.

The bill incorporates Coloradoís local control emphasis, but also addresses the reality of the dangers presented by the combination of statewide drought conditions and the large hazardous-fuels load, easily ignited by Mother Nature or humans.

A fellow senator and I have been working closely on the bill with the director of the stateís fire prevention and control division and a number of interested people, including residents of the Lower North Fork burn area, firefighters, fire chiefs, land managers from the state and national forest services and other state agencies, and agricultural and environmental groups.

Weíve been collecting input, concerns and proposed changes to the first draft of the bill. Hopefully, by doing this outreach in advance of the billís hearing, it will receive more support than if we had waited to have this contact with the various stakeholders. Weíll present an amended version of the bill to the Senate judiciary committee for its consideration and for public testimony to be received.

I am cosponsoring another commission bill that will be heard this week to create an out of session (interim) legislative committee looking more broadly than the Lower North Fork commission on identifying the issues and possible proactive steps to take to address Coloradoís risk of catastrophic wildfires. This committee would have a broader mission that could more fully address such areas as statewide forest health and Coloradoís timber industry.

My bill on electronic participation for school-board members was passed unanimously by the Senate Education committee, with an amendment expanding it to include executive sessions if local board policy allows that option. That bill now moves to the Senate floor this week for further consideration.

It will be a busy week as Iíll also have in the education committee my bill seeking to expand studentsí supplemental online course options in a ďblended learningĒ environment, which is using digital learning with on-site teacher support. The bill includes provision for professional development opportunities for teachers. Iím hopeful that weíll also see improved broadband access in our region as that, too, will be critical in providing all of Coloradoís students, rural and urban, with the same learning opportunities.

Ellen Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Coloradoís General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact Roberts by phone at (303) 866-4884, or by email ellen.roberts.senate@state.co.us.

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