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Bennet Introduces ‘Protect the West’ Act to address wildfires and drought

Legislation aims to invest in the environment with sustainable financial efforts
Sen. Michael Bennet speaks in the Dolores Water Conservancy conference room. (The Journal file)

Sen. Michael Bennet announced his “Protect the West” Act, presenting his plan this week to address wildfires and drought across the West through investments in restoration and sustainability.

“In the West, our forests, grasslands, and watersheds are as important to our economy as the Lincoln Tunnel is to New York. But they are under threat – not only from climate change, but also consistent underinvestment from the federal government,” Bennet said in a news release.

The bill, presented by Bennet on behalf of himself and Sen. John Hickenlooper, seeks to establish an Outdoor Restoration Fund for restoration and resilience projects, echoing previously proposed legislation from Bennet in 2021.

Front end prevention and mitigation efforts are more cost-effective than recovering forests and watersheds after natural disasters strike, according to the news release. In Durango, where severe drought has persisted in recent years, preventive measures for droughts and wildfires could make a difference.

The West is facing a 1,200 year megadrought, and the federal government spends 30 times more in recovering from wildfires than preventing them, according to the news release, and Bennet will “make a major, proactive investment” in preventive methods rather than reactive ones.

Through investing in wildfire prevention, Bennet aims to save money for landowners and local governments, such as those in local municipalities in La Plata County.

“To reduce the risk of wildfire and protect the West, we must break from the status

quo and make a major, proactive investment in the restoration of our forests, grasslands,

and watersheds that matches the scale of the challenge,” Bennet said in the release.

With the Restoration and Resilience Project Grant Program, grants will be established for restoration efforts in both capacity and implementation of the projects. The Grant Program must seek local input and provide mentoring opportunities for underserved communities and populations.

In rural areas such as Southwest Colorado, Bennet aims to create 2 million jobs, supporting industries like agriculture, outdoor recreation and forestry.

The Outdoor Restoration and Watershed fund will support local efforts in restoring forests and natural habitats, preventing wildfires and expanding outdoor access. The bill would establish an advisory council “of local, industry, conservation, Tribal and national experts” to oversee funding efforts.

Twenty billion dollars will be made available to state and local governments, tribes, special districts and nonprofits in an effort to bring more diverse voices to develop environmental solutions. Forty billion dollars will also be invested through partnerships between states and tribes, “to tackle the backlog of restoration, fire mitigation, and resilience projects” on public, private and tribal lands.

“We need to break from the status quo and make a major investment in the restoration of our forests that matches the scale of the challenge,” Bennet said in the release. “We have no time to waste.”

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 smattalian@durangoherald.com.

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