Bennet, Senate Colleagues Urge Appropriators to Fund Wildfire Recovery in the West

Colorado News

Flames lick above vehicles on Highway 162 as the Bear Fire burns in Oroville, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The blaze, part of the lightning-sparked North Complex, expanded at a critical rate of spread as winds buffeted the region. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

DENVER, Colo. –– Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet led U.S. Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in two separate requests to the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations for federal funding to support wildfire recovery efforts in the West.

In the first request, Bennet, Gardner, Feinstein, and Wyden urged the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies to secure additional funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program to meet projected demand in Colorado and elsewhere. The letter also calls on the subcommittee to reduce costs to local project sponsors in light of the effect of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on state and local budgets. The EWP program helps counties, towns, and private property owners protect against post-fire damage. Additional funding, and greater flexibility on cost share requirements, would ensure that the USDA can partner effectively with state and local governments to recover from wildfires.

In the second request, the senators called on the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies to secure additional funding for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to rehabilitate Forest Service lands after a devastating wildfire season. Wildfires burned on millions of acres of public land across the West, including high-use forests across Colorado, and the cost of repair and rehabilitation of these lands is significant. Without additional funding for reforestation, trail and facility repair, and habitat restoration, the USFS may be forced to divert funding from existing programs or leave important recovery projects undone. 

In the letter to Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Ranking Member Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) Bennet and the senators wrote, “Congress created USDA’s EWP Program in 1973 to help communities mitigate damage after a natural disaster. EWP is funded on an ad hoc basis, but as of August 25, the USDA had less than $45 million left to spend on EWP recovery projects. Without supplemental funding, it will be challenging for the USDA to partner effectively with counties, towns, and private property owners as they recover from natural disasters. Therefore, we ask the Committee to provide supplemental funding to USDA that will meet demand for the EWP program.”

In the letter to Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Ranking Member Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Bennet and the senators wrote, “As fire crews across the West work to contain the remaining fires, post-fire recovery is at the forefront of our constituents’ minds. Our states face an uphill battle to restore land, water, infrastructure, and ecosystems. In the long-term, recovery will require the U.S. Forest Service to invest in rehabilitation on National Forest System lands, including reforestation, repairing trails and facilities, restoring habitat, and other measures. These long-term rehabilitation efforts are vital to our economy in the West and the U.S. Forest Service’s partnership is crucial.” 

Bennet recently visited Grand and Larimer counties to meet with local officials and first responders to assess the damage from the East Troublesome fire and the Cameron Peak fire. 

In September, Bennet led Gardner and U.S. Representatives Joe Neguse and Scott Tipton in urging USDA to quickly approve EWP funding to mitigate and recover from wildfire damage. Days later, Bennet announced the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) approved the first tranche of EWP funds for $5 million worth of projects in Colorado to mitigate and recover from wildfires. Later that month, Bennet and a group of Western Democratic senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to provide additional federal assistance to improve the response to wildfires and assist the states, Tribes, and communities grappling with fires and their aftermath.

In October, Bennet, Neguse, and Gardner sent a letter to the USFS and NRCS to request that they work with the State of Colorado and local governments to address the threat posed by multiple fires to the region’s watersheds and water supply. He also joined his colleagues in asking the National Guard for a report on its readiness to help states prepare, fight, and recover from wildfires. Later that month, Bennet urged Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to improve pay, job stability, and benefits for federal wildfire personnel.

As Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s Conservation, Forestry, and Natural Resources Subcommittee, Bennet has consistently worked in Congress to improve EWP project delivery—urging the Government Accountability Office to provide recommendations for improvement and introducing the MATCH Act with U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to expedite cleanup and increase flexibility for local matching requirements. Bennet continues to advocate for federal funding to support wildfire relief efforts across Colorado and the West. 

The text of the Letter to the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies is available HERE.

The text of the Letter to the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies is available HERE.

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