DENVER – After only two rounds of funding, a popular and successful Colorado wildfire-mitigation program may smolder to nothing.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year – announced earlier this month – would completely slash funding for the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program.
Responding to devastating wildfires, the program was created by the Legislature in 2013 with a one-time transfer of $9.8 million. This year an additional $1 million of severance taxes were used for the effort.
The grants focus on projects that reduce the risk for fire damage, including creating defensible space around structures and fuels reduction.
“The revenue situation is extremely constrained,” said Henry Sobanet, the governor’s budget director. “We believe existing and prior funding will allow work to proceed through the fall of 2017. That said, this area is one we will look at if the revenue situation improves.”
The Legislature approves the budget with its own spending proposals, so lawmakers next year may find a way to come up with the money.
Supporters of the grant program may be a bit confused, as the state’s revenue picture has improved only since the economic downturn. But facing a constitutional cap on how much money the state budget can grow each year, budget writers are forced to close a $373 million gap in spending.
For residents and groups in Southwest Colorado that have taken advantage of the grant program, the budget news is dire and disappointing.
“It’s a basic public-safety issue, as well as a forest-health issue,” said state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who sponsored the legislation that created the program. “Colorado certainly has a stake in both of those topics very much.”
FireWise of Southwest Colorado, which works with landowners on risk reduction, has received more than $900,000 from the grant program.
Projects included providing incentives to homeowners for clearing fuels and engaging entire communities in risk reduction work by appointing “ambassadors” to identify projects and organize efforts. It also keeps risk-reduction businesses afloat and creates jobs, as those businesses tend to slump during low fire seasons.
“What we would lose would be some of the momentum,” said Pam Wilson, executive director of FireWise. “Mitigation is not cheap. If you don’t have some sort of financial help, it just doesn’t get done.”
Southwest Conservation Corps, which operates conservation service programs, recently partnered with La Plata County to write a grant to offset costs for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to complete thinning. Grant work has also been done on private lands.
“Not only does critical work get completed with these funds, but the next generation of conservationists are being actively trained on the why this work is important and the how to do it safely,” said Kevin Heiner, regional director of Southwest Conservation Corps. “These funds give wings to partnerships that would otherwise struggle.”
Aaron Kimple, program coordinator for San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership – a stakeholder in the grant program – said his organization has been able to use grant dollars to match federal dollars for treatment.
“Working with state agencies, and having access to state funds expands our capability to conduct treatments and make communities more resilient,” Kimple said. “With state funds we are able to work on a larger landscape.”