Gov. Ritter signs healthy forests bills |

Gov. Ritter signs healthy forests bills

Bob Berwyn
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

KEYSTONE, Colo. ” Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed a half-dozen forest-health bills into law at Keystone Wednesday to help communities on the Western Slope remove beetle-killed trees that pose a fire threat to neighborhoods, water supplies and critical infrastructure.

The suite of bills is a sign that policymakers in Denver understand the need to protect environmental, economic and social values associated with forests around mountain communities, Ritter said.

“We have 22.6 million acres of forest lands that are critical for wildlife, watersheds and landscapes. These bill bring us a little closer to a statewide forest health vision,” Ritter said.

Among the measures passed was Senate Bill 71, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne, which authorizes $1 million annually for the next four years for forest-restoration work.

The measure is a four-year extension of a pilot project that helped pay for a fire break in a West Vail neighborhood and for clearing dead trees around a community water tank in the Vail area.

Gibbs, who co-sponsored the bill with state Rep. Christine Scanlan, a Silverthorne Democrat, said the money will go for similar projects in other mountain communities.

To illustrate the need for the bill, Scanlan recounted a close call last summer, when she saw lightning ignite a tree near the Keystone Center before a cloudburst extinguished the small fire.

The Keystone Center later used a state grant to remove more than 100 dead and dying trees from the grounds. At a cost of about $85 to $100 per tree, the non-profit wouldn’t have been able to afford that project without state-authorized funding, she explained.

State Rep. Al White, a Grand County Republican, said the beetle battle is nonpartisan.

“We need to take a hand in managing forests in a rational way,” White said. The alternative ” leaving the landscape to succumb to inevitable fires ” is not acceptable, he added.

Ritter said public-private partnerships are critical to address the issue on a meaningful scale. One such effort could come through the issuance of bonds by the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority.

Senate Bill 221, co-sponsored by Gibbs, Scanlan and White, authorizes the state agency to issue up to $50 million in bonds to fund watershed protection and forest health projects.

“This is by far the most innovative step I’ve seen anywhere in the country when it comes to forest health,” said Colorado State Forest Service director Jeff Jahnke, referring to SB 221.

A variety of tools and collaborativ action is needed to effectively manage the state’s current and future forests, said Northwest Colorado Council of Governments director Gary Severson.

“There is no single silver bullet,” Severson said.

Taken together, the legislation also will help firefighters by reducing the wildfire risk in critical areas around homes and neighborhoods in the wildland-urban interface.

“These bills,” said Lake Dillon Fire-Rescue Chief Dave Parmley, “are a step in the right direction.”

Other measures signed by Ritter Wednesday include:

– House Bill 1110, which creates a five-year program that allows property owners to deduct wildfire-mitigation costs, up to $2,500, from their state income tax.

– House Bill 1269, which authorizes a sales-tax exemption for the storage, sale and use of wood products from beetle-killed trees. Those products include things like lumber, furniture and wood chips.

– House Bill 1318, which creates a voluntary beetle-mitigation fund to be administered by the Colorado State Forest Service to remove beetle-killed trees from state-owned lands.

– House Bill 1241, which authorizes a voluntary state tax check-off donation for watershed protection projects through 2010.

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