Funds will be used for firefighting and watershed restoration
A year has passed since President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill to fund a slew of projects across the country, and some of that money has made its way to Colorado.
The U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday that it will launch a $40 million watershed restoration initiative in partnership with Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit dedicated to preserving freshwater fish habitat.
“We received this money in part because we’ve done a really good job over the last few years prioritizing watersheds and targets out west,” said Ty Churchwell, mining coordinator in TU’s Durango office. “…I think what’s really important about this money is how we’re going to be able to allocate this money and work with stakeholders, including the Forest Service, to identify projects and throughout forest to work together to make really meaningful habitat improvements with that money.”
A Forest Service press release said that Trout Unlimited has used $20 million in Forest Service funds over the past few years to complete $64 million worth of restoration projects.
Drew Peternell, director of the Colorado water program for Trout Unlimited, said the planning process for how the money will be used is still ongoing. Seven million will be distributed statewide in the first year, and he said Colorado will receive less than $500,000 over that period.
Though specific plans are yet to be finalized, Peternell said the money will go towards restoring abandoned mines, improving fish passage and removing culverts, and river restoration projects.
“It is encouraging to see the resources of the bipartisan Infrastructure Act being put to good use,” said Chris Wood, President and CEO of Trout Unlimited, in the press release. “This agreement builds on a long and productive partnership between the Forest Service and Trout Unlimited. Together, over the years, we have restored more than 400 miles of important fish habitat, reconnected more than 700 miles of habitat by removing barriers to fish migration and improved hundreds of thousands of acres of National Forest System land. We look forward to continuing and expanding this work in the years to come.”
Trout Unlimited began a new approach to conservation in 2021, identifying priority watersheds for restoration. Peternell said the organization is in the process of identifying its priority watersheds in the region and said the money will be channeled there over the next five years. He expects parts of the Rio Grande in Colorado and northern New Mexico to be included on that list, as well as the headwaters of the Animas and Dolores rivers.
“Right now, a lot of attention is being paid to improving rivers for fish as we face scary climate scenarios,” Peternell said. “It’s encouraging that federal funds are being made available to help us make our fish more resilient to these scenarios.”
The Forest Service also announced a new, interactive storymap that can be used to follow wildfire-fighting work. The agency selected 10 “initial investment landscapes” in the west based on high-risk burn sheds. While parts of La Plata County and surrounding counties fall into a “high-risk fireshed,” he was not selected for the first round of investment in mitigation work. Approximately 3.5 million acres outside of Denver and 1.5 million acres in north-central New Mexico were selected.
Priority zones were selected based on a number of factors, including presence in major population centers, available local partnerships, and opportunity to invest in undeserving communities.
The work in the state will be part of Colorado’s push for fire reduction, not suppression. It will include forest thinning and mandatory burns.