We sat inside an office building just across the Potomac River from the nation's capital — four of us from Colorado Springs talking for 90 minutes with two officials, joined toward the end by a third higher-ranking executive, all from the U.S. Forest Service.
Our group had joined about 30 other people last week on the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance's annual trip to Washington. The contingent was divided into four teams pursuing specific issues (in our case, infrastructure) but our team of eight quickly concluded we should split up. Half focused on transportation, while the rest of us (County Commissioner Sallie Clark, county public information officer Dave Rose, Utilities government affairs manager Andy Colosimo and myself) pursued fire and flood mitigation.
In one long day, we learned our catastrophic events of the past 15 months have not gone unnoticed, by Congress or governmental agencies. You could even say the D.C. folks were sympathetic — to a point.
Visiting the Forest Service was particularly revealing. We met with Steve Segovia, deputy director for watershed, fish, wildlife, air and rare plants; Chris Savage, assistant director for watershed, fish and aquatic ecology; and later also Bill Timko, deputy director for forest management.
What they told us wasn't encouraging. They see 80 million to 90 million acres of national forests that need restoration work. Also, until recently the Forest Service spent 20 percent of its money fighting fires. Now that amount is approaching 50 percent, $5 billion or more a year, draining other programs.
"We don't have good answers," Segovia said.
The agency is pushing legislation in Congress called the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, a strategy that dates to 2002. It's about thinning and managing national forests to reduce the epidemic of massive Western wildfires. But in this era of austerity with a polarized Congress, that program and other funding — such as more money for mitigation — wind up being rolled into monster bills such as the now-stalled Farm Bill. Lawmakers from both sides agree on this need, but nothing happens.
Our group, with Clark at the forefront because of her efforts to find federal money for Waldo Canyon Fire recovery, had another agenda item. Beyond fires such as Waldo, local governments face the long-term threat of major flooding out of charred national forests. Thus, more places like El Paso County need help to pay for minimizing the flood risks.
But emergency money is only available for a year after a fire is fully contained. For Waldo Canyon, that year ended in July. One would think that the feds should pick up the tab for a lot longer, since burned federal land directly causes such floods that have struck Manitou Springs and U.S. Highway 24; ecologists estimate it'll be a decade until sufficient vegetation is replenished.
Clark and other political figures are asking for two years of emergency help, and wishing for more. But that humble request isn't finding much traction in D.C. When it came up with the Forest Service, Timko said, "Colorado is on our radar. ... But emergency money is to help in the emergency, right after a fire. It's not meant to be ongoing."
In other words, don't count on more assistance except from other sources, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, with whom Clark and Rose also visited. And that conversation underscored why it's good to make that trip and meet in person.
Corps officials assured Clark they had a chunk of money destined for Fountain Creek channel stabilization and the Waldo Canyon and Williams Canyon drainage problems into Manitou. But when they opened the file to confirm it, they said the money was going to Pueblo, not El Paso County, at the other end of Fountain Creek.
"Obviously they knew nothing about our geography," Clark said. "But they promised to look into it." In the meantime, the Forest Service can't help us prevent more floods coming off federal land. It was evident that folks inside the Beltway simply can't fully grasp the situation here.
So a follow-up thought came to mind: Somebody should organize a reverse concept of the D.C. trip. Our region needs to bring top Forest Service folks, along with a House subcommittee and leaders of other agencies, here to see first-hand the problems their burned national forests can cause.
Maybe then, we'd have a better chance.