U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet made the case this week that wildfire prevention saves money in the long run, creates jobs and is what is best for the environment.
The senator made his comments during an informative hearing titled Forestry in the Farm Bill, held in the Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources.
The hearing was a continuation of Bennet’s efforts to advocate for forest fire prevention and forest restoration, like the Protect the West Act that he introduced with Sen. John Hickenlooper. The act would address the causes and impacts of fires, and protect and equip communities with financial and physical resources – on par with the senator’s other efforts to reduce risk in conjunction with other legislators.
The senator is advocating to include the act in the Farm Bill, which Congress has to vote on every five years, to further protect the forests of the West. While no voting took place at the hearing, Bennet and witnesses shared information on the importance of forest conservation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., both gave testimony.
Bennet and those invited to speak said saving Colorado’s forests is a national responsibility that requires collective action. When forests are destroyed, water supplies can become tainted by resulting mudslides. The West’s water is used for farms in Kansas and other Midwest states that produce essential crops; when farmers are unable to do their job because of tainted water, the nation’s corn and soybean supply dwindles.
The subcommittee met with three goals in mind: to shed light on the importance of America’s forests, underscore threats to forests resulting from climate change and policy, and to consider future actions in forest management and investment.
In his opening remarks, Bennet conveyed the necessity of forests in the everyday lives of Americans. They impact critical resources like water and air quality: “In my travels across Colorado and the country, virtually everyone I’ve met appreciates our forests,” Bennet said in his opening statement. “But very few people understand their full contribution – or their scale.”
Bennet then called attention to the recent forest fires that have devastated Colorado’s communities, the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires in 2020. Forest fires have dire impacts, especially in rural areas, where communities don’t always have the resources to cope with devastation and prevention, which most often impacts rural towns that depend on forests for clean water.
If included in the Farm Bill, the Protect the West Act would fund investments in post-fire recovery and restoration; emergency watershed protection programs; the replanting of trees; and human, technological and physical infrastructure to reduce impacts of forest loss.
Speaking to fellow legislators on the Agricultural Committee, Bennet emphasized that Colorado’s rural areas are suffering the most from forest fire damage. This is partially a result of climate-induced threats such as dryer climates, invasive beetles and mudslides combined with a lack of collective legislative action.
In turn, that causes national strain.
“Most Americans associate forests with wildlife habitat and stunning natural beauty. But their value goes far beyond that,” Bennet said. “Forests are responsible for the air we breathe and the water we drink.”
Forest fire prevention methods cost about $1,500 per acre. To fight a fire after it has already started, it costs about $50,000 per acre. The nation’s underinvestment in forestry has cost over $60 million, Bennet said.
For rural communities, this means a few things. A witness at the hearing, Director of Colorado Forest Restoration Institute Tony Cheng, encouraged increasing opportunities for the firefighter workforce, which Durango has historically struggled with.
Cheng also stressed funding programs that use fire-prevention methods, such as fire mitigation and repression, and increasing the presence of those programs in rural communities, such as Durango.
Other witnesses – including conservationists, foresters and scientists – advocated for projects such as the Colorado Front Range Collaborative that reduces fire risk and protects water supply. They promoted collaboration between Western states and ecologically sound forest management and restoration, all of which would be made possible through funding of the bill.
Everyone was in agreement that correctly investing in forests is critical, demanding immediate collective action to prevent fires and restore the damage that has already occurred.
“If we lose these forests, we lose our water,” Bennet said. “And if we lose our water, we lose everything.”
Sarah Mattalian is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.
An earlier version of this story erred in saying a subcommittee hearing was held to discuss a forestry bill. The hearing was held to address forestry health as it relates to the Farm Bill. The story also erred in saying Congress votes on the Farm Bill every year. It is voted on every five years.