Afternoon wind gusts – the kind that can stoke a raging wildfire – ripped through the Lions Den on Thursday afternoon as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with community stakeholders to discuss collaborative wildfire protection projects in Southwest Colorado.
Vilsack also made the stop to announce a $63 million investment from the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, to expand fuel breaks to halt wildfires in key high-risk areas in Colorado, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.
“We’re continuing to double down on the work that we are doing on the wildfire crisis, on the reforestation and on the community defense grants,” Vilsack said. “We’re going to continue to make these investments.”
He said the “lion’s share” of the funds – $34 million – will be spent on projects in Colorado, of which $13 million will be spent on the San Juan National Forest.
A veritable who’s who of wildfire prevention stakeholders packed the small shelter including Dan Gibbs, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources; Colorado State Forester Matt McCombs; U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region Forester Frank Beum; and Vilsack’s own son, Bureau of Land Management Colorado State Director Doug Vilsack.
On the more local level, San Juan National Forest Supervisor Dave Neely gave Vilsack a lay of the land, and La Plata County Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton and City Councilor Gilda Yazzie were both in attendance.
With over a half dozen land managing agencies present, the topic of collaboration dominated most of the discussion.
“It is the only way to do business,” Vilsack said.
On a local level, Porter-Norton and the city of Durango’s Natural Resources Manager Amy Schwarzbach touted the accomplishments of the Water and Wildfire Protection Fund. The project is a joint endeavor between the two governments to build a wildfire resilient community and step-up on a local level to encourage state and federal agencies to do the same, Porter-Norton told the secretary.
Although the city and the county have taken on fire mitigation work in areas to protect homes and critical infrastructure, limited budgets and staff members mean collaboration at all levels of government is necessary. Most local fuel treatment projects are measured in tens or hundreds of acres, not thousands.
“The main take-away is that the resources under the infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act are doing exactly what President Biden had hoped they would do, which is to create a sense of connection and community where people are working together collaboratively to preserve and protect our forests,” Vilsack said after the event.
When asked if local governments should do more to ensure that poorly constructed homes are not being built in high-risk fire areas, Vilsack was hesitant to take a strong position. Legislators in the Colorado statehouse passed a bill last week that will establish a building code for areas that fall in the wildland-urban interface.
“Local governments certainly have a responsibility to make sure that homeowners understand the steps they can take to significantly reduce the risk of their homes being damaged,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack is in Durango through Saturday, when he will give the keynote address at the Fort Lewis College commencement ceremony. He hinted that, given recent staffing problems that many agencies have faced, he’d encourage students to consider forestry.
“My pitch is basically that these folks get engaged in a number of activities – I’ll mention the Forest Service,” he joked.