It’s least it shouldn’t be – but continuing drought

It’s not fire season right now – or at least it shouldn’t be
– but continuing drought and seemingly constant shifts in “normal” weather
patterns set the stage for the record-setting, yearend wildfires in California that
cost the federal government billions to contain.   The aftermath
of the California fire disasters leaves Colorado and entire American West at
increased risk of yet another destructive and costly fire season in the year to
come.

For water managers, the federal government’s approach to
fighting wildfires presents a threat more insidious than the immediate dangers
of the fires themselves. The federal government is the single largest landowner
in Colorado, the majority of those lands are managed by the US Forest Service.
Federal agencies own and manage more than a thirdof the land in Colorado. And in
some western counties, that percentage is north of 90 %. 

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Most of the water used in our homes, businesses and to
irrigate our crops in the West originates on federal lands. This means the
federal government has a major responsibility for the management and health of
our forests and our watersheds. But the feds have largely abdicated that
responsibility.

Year after year moneys appropriated for forest health and
forest management are diverted to pay for the ever increasing cost of
firefighting. And as a result, the very programs that would reduce wildfire
risk have been drastically reduced.

The problem has become so large that the Forest Service now
spends more than half of its annual budget fighting wildfire emergencies,
leaving little left to either prevent fires or to restore forest ecosystems
back to health. That trend has and will continue to worsen if it isn’t addressed.

Federal agencies determine wildfire budgets based on the
average costs of fighting fires over the past decade. This is an outdated and
dangerous budgeting process that fails to consider that fire seasons are
growing longer and more expensive with every passing year. And as a result,
Congress is forced to appropriate more funding to a budgeting system that
almost always underestimates the actual cost of fighting fires.

While the Colorado River District supports full funding for
firefighting, it should not come at the expense of forest fire prevention and
watershed health measures. If we continue on the current path, wildland fires and
the attendant expense of fighting those fires will continue to set new records
– all to the exclusion of improving our forests’ heath and reducing the risk of
wildfires.

It’s time to change the way money is appropriated for
agencies’ firefighting efforts. It’s time to end the practice of “fire
borrowing” that has deprived our federal land management agencies of the
resources they need for watershed management.

Congress has an opportunity to act now to reduce the risk of
future fire disasters and improve our forests’ health. Congress is currently working
on a bill to fund disaster recoveries as part of a larger bill to keep the
government operating. A fire funding fix belongs in this bill.

To their credit, Senators Bennet and Gardner, along with
Representative Scott Tipton have worked to advance bipartisan solutions to the “fire
borrowing” problem.

Catastrophic wildfires are no less disasters than are
hurricanes, tornadoes, and catastrophic floods. Accordingly, they should be
funded like other disasters through the Federal Emergency Management
Administration (FEMA) or other agencies, not from the Forest Service’s
day-to-day planning and management budget.

Our current system isn’t working. It’s time to prioritize
and fund proactive forest management to protect our citizens, our forests and our
local economies. Congress must act now. It’s no less than our water, our
security, and our future that are at risk.