USA — With a goal of preventing a catastrophic wildfire in the Colorado high country, Gov. Bill Ritter (D-Colorado) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced plans on Wednesday to move forward with the “Healthy Forests/Vibrant Communities Act of 2009.”
The series of bills includes money to train firefighters as well as to incentivize the removal of dead trees from the mountains and will be introduced when lawmakers return to work in January.
“We’ll still experience wildfires because we always have, but the fact of the matter is it could be so much more limited in the breadth of the damage done if we take this kind of action now,” said Ritter at a State Capitol news conference announcing the plan. “Our forests are at risk. They are fighting epidemics from pine beetles, diseases, drought and climate change.”
It is estimated that 1.5 million acres in Colorado contain dead or dying trees and the pine beetle, specifically, is claiming anywhere from 300 to 500,000 new acres of trees each year. In Colorado, a significant amount of that land is owned by the federal government. Ritter said the state has asked for emergency funds from the federal government to help mitigate against wildfire and that the Forest Service has requested $175 million for the Rocky Mountain region to deal with the pine beetle.
The series of bills being sponsored would include $5.5 million from the state’s Severance Tax Operational Account, which gets its money from taxes paid by oil and gas companies operating in Colorado. Already, there are planned projects in Summit County and Mesa County to turn woody biomass produced from beetle kill into ethanol. One of the bills being discussed would further incentivize the removal of dead trees from troubled areas to turn into energy production.
Tourism is Colorado’s second largest industry behind agriculture, with $7.9 billion spent in the state during 2007. It accounts for roughly 200,000 jobs in Colorado. Lawmakers say the risk to the mountains must be eased for the health of the entire state which is why much of the funding would go to training, recruiting and retaining the volunteer firefighters in the region.
“A catastrophic wildfire in the Northern and Central Rockies at this point in time is not so much an if-it-will-happen event, but a when-it-will-happen event,” said Rep. Christine Scanlan (D-Summit County), recapping the testimony of a wildfire expert to her over the summer. “If you knew Katrina was going to happen in two years, wouldn’t you do something different? The answer is yes. The state of Colorado is going to do something different.”