Sen. Bennet meets with forest health group to hear about forest restoration work

SUN photo/Clayton Chaney
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado listens to JR Ford from the Forest Health Company about his ideas of using biomass energy to fuel local energy needs. Bennet made a stop in Pagosa Springs last week to meet with representatives from the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership to discuss funding options for public and private forestry work done in the area.

By Clayton Chaney
Staff Writer

Last week, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado spent some time in the southwest region of the state meeting with Coloradans to hear their concerns and plans to keep everyone safe through this economic crisis, the pandemic and ongoing wildfires.

Bennet made a stop at Pagosa Springs’ Reservoir Hill Park, where he met with representatives of the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP) and heard their plans for funds received through a Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “Historic suppression of natural fire in the San Juan Forest and surrounding private lands has created a hazardous abundance of fuel.”

In 2014, the SJHFHP began a project on Reservoir Hill where members and people from the community, including local high school students, worked to reduce the risk of a wildfire. Over a period of four years, much of the park was cleared of dead trees, dry brush, and other fire fuels that accumulated on the forest ground. 

By removing these fire fuels, the forest was restored back to a more natural state and will provide more resiliency to wildfires. 

Members discussed ideas to come up with the best solutions for reducing wildfires between both public and private lands, along with what to do with organic materials that are removed from the forest in order to reduce wildfire risk and damage. 

One of the problems that members from the SJHFHP are facing is what to do with organic materials that are not usable as building materials.

Most of the organic materials removed from areas with a high wildfire risk end up being turned into woodchips, which doesn’t offer much of a financial incentive for private land owners. 

JR Ford from the Forest Health Company suggested that biomass subsidies from the government could encourage private land owners to do more restoration work.

He explained how the organic materials that would otherwise be turned into woodchips could be used to generate energy through biomass power plants. 

According to Ford, it takes about 15 megawatts to power Pagosa Springs and he believes at least half of that could come from “forest waste.” 

Pagosa Ranger District Manager Kevin Khung spoke highly of the Joint Chiefs’ Initiative. 

The Joint Chiefs’ Initiative is a project that “brought partners and agencies together to work across boundaries to protect homes and secure resources vital to the sustainability of the surrounding communities,” according to the USDA.

When speaking to Bennet about the program, Khung stated, “It’s a gem … whatever you can do to keep it shiny, do it.”

Khung also spoke of the importance of educating the public and the effect it could have on the way communities interact with each other in order to mitigate threats of wildfires. 

Ryan Cox from the Colorado State Forest Service also commented, saying, “people need to see progress.” 

Along with Khung, Cox suggested he believes that educating the public about the forest and wildfires will spark change in the way communities manage their forests.

In an interview with Bennet after the meeting, he said, “What they’re doing here could be implemented all across Colorado,” in reference to the SJHFHP in Pagosa Springs and the CFLRP’s being used to fund forestry projects in the area. 

Bennet added, “This is one of the collaborative groups that is the farthest along and has the longest track record.”

“I’m looking for opportunities to fund forestry in a different way and create different incentives,” Bennet said. 

This story was posted on October 28, 2020.