Spending millions on forest health will require broad cooperation, advocacy group says

The Morgan Creek Fire near Seedhouse Road in North Routt County last summer.
Dylan Anderson/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Infrastructure and Jobs Act passed by Congress last year allocated more than $5.5 billion in funding to the U.S. Forest Service to tackle issues related to natural resources across the country, but spending that money may not be so simple.

Pat O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance advocacy group, told Routt County’s commissioners on Monday, May 9, that some of the land managers he’s been talking to don’t have the capacity to spend that kind of money.

If all of that funding is going to have the desired effect, it will require broad cooperation from multiple agencies, he said.

“Millions of dollars are going to go into this forest one way or another,” said O’Toole, who is a former Wyoming state legislator and owns a ranch in North Routt County near the Wyoming boarder.

He said Colorado needs to work to scale up its forest management plan and take on large, ambitious projects to restore forests and address the effects the climate is having on these landscapes. Routt County is important in this equation because there is so much designated forest land here, and the county is also the headwaters of the Yampa River.

In January, the Forest Service announced a decadelong strategy to improve forest health by treating more than 20 million acres of land in forests and another 30 million acres of other federal, state and private lands around them. In the first year, the plan would reforest up to 400,000 acres of previously burned land across the country.

While using this money to increase defensible space around structures is important, O’Toole said he feels like more attention needs to be paid to the interior of the forests, which are so full of dead trees in some spots that O’Toole won’t ride his horse through out of fear one might fall.

“What we need to be doing is moving into the forest on a much bigger scale,” he said. “It’s certainly important to protect some of the beautiful homes in Routt, Moffat and Carbon County, (Wyoming) … but I would argue the bigger bang for our buck is going to be healing the forest itself.”

In meetings with leaders of various land management agencies such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, O’Toole said managers are saying they have “so much money and don’t know how to spend it.”

O’Toole said his organization is working on a project called the Headwaters of the Colorado River to bring all these partners together — not to be confused with the Colorado River Headwaters Project in Grand County. The group is part of the Forest Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

O’Toole said they have some grant funding for work planned this summer, but now is the time to ramp up for next summer’s projects.

He stressed that a healthy forest should act as a sponge, holding more water back longer and slowing spring runoff seasons by trapping more moisture in the soil. Projects could include forest thinning, strategic burning and aspen regeneration.

“We’re all starting to think about ramping up next year,” O’Toole said. “If you give nature a chance, nature will heal itself, but we haven’t really given nature as much of a chance as we need to.”