The U.S. Department of Agriculture will invest $5.7 million in implementation of Chaffee County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, which maps where to treat forested lands to reduce risk at the highest cost efficiency and community benefit.

The funding comes from the Natural Resources Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program and flows into the National Forest Foundation Upper Arkansas Forest Fund. The fund was created this year to aggregate finances and manage projects to reduce wildfire risk. 

Forest treatments address the threat of wildfire by reducing high fuel loads that are the result of decades of fire suppression, insect infestations and drought. High-severity wildfire events increased from one during a century to five in the past decade, including the 2019 Decker Fire. 

“Forests and watersheds are essential infrastructure that sustain our economy in Colorado. I’m thrilled USDA funding will support grassroots efforts in Chaffee County to reduce the risk of wildfires and protect this vital watershed that hundreds of thousands of Coloradans rely on,” said Sen. Michael Bennet. “I’m committed to continue working with state, local and national leaders to secure additional resources to improve forest health across our state.”

The goal of the Upper Arkansas Forest Fund is to reduce the risk of high-severity fire by half over the next decade. Chaffee County’s wildlife plan prioritizes forest treatment areas and shows that cross-boundary work on public and private land are needed to meet this goal. 

The Upper Arkansas Forest Fund pools funds from federal programs with funds from state, county and local governments, private companies and citizens to accomplish cross-boundary work at landscape scale. 

Treatments include thinning trees, prescribed fire and mastication — a patch-clearing method used in the piñon-juniper forest. 

“Forest restoration treatments must be prioritized, accelerated and coordinated across boundaries to address the threat of wildfire effectively,” said Marcus Selig, vice president of field programs for the National Forest Foundation. “With support from the NRCS, the Upper Arkansas Forest Fund allows the (foundation) and the Chaffee County community to do exactly that as we collaborate to restore the highest priority private and public lands.”

Through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, NRCS works to implement projects that demonstrate innovative solutions to advance conservation priorities on the ground, the agency said in a press release announcing this year’s awards. Chaffee County was among 15 recipients of nearly $75 million in Alternative Funding Arrangements for partner-led projects that address natural resource concerns on private lands.

The Alternative Funding Arrangements component is “designed for partners who are thinking outside of the box to address some of our most pressing natural resource challenges,” said Terry Cosby, chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

“By combining local expertise, partner resources, federal assistance and a shared commitment to conservation we can advance critical priorities and innovative solutions that are key to addressing the climate crisis.” 

Envision Chaffee County identified wildfire threat as a top concern during its 2017-18 community visioning and planning effort. The initiative facilitated the wildfire plan update in 2020, and it continues to help the Forest Health Council’s 35 partners design and fund a suite of programs and projects that implement the plan’s goals.

“It has been tremendously inspiring to see the many forest health partners come together in the basin for a common purpose,” said Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt, an Envision co-lead and Forest Health Council member. “We are definitely achieving so much more together than we could as separate agencies. We are extremely grateful to the NRCS for recognizing our community as innovative.”

Council partners to date have raised $11 million for projects that include a strategically placed fuel break on Methodist Mountain to protect the Salida and Poncha Springs communities of 7,000 people. Programs include Chaffee Chips, a wood slash removal service, and Chaffee Treats, which develops a pipeline of projects that connect large-scale private and public land treatments to be supported by the Upper Arkansas Forest Fund.

“The investment by NRCS in our community is the result of four years of engagement and unprecedented collaboration that really began when citizens identified wildfire as a top concern,” Envision Co-lead Cindy Williams said. “The award is a key milestone in realizing the vision of a fire-ready future.”

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