Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part story.
If voters approve the proposed 0.25 percent countywide sales tax at the November general election, a portion of funds would be used to treat forest lands.
The U.S. Forest Service currently treats about 1,200 acres per year. With additional funding, that number would grow to 4,000 acres annually, nearly triple the number of acres that could see mitigation.
The sales tax would generate about $1 million per year and would be used to:
• Strengthen forest health;
• Conserve and support working ranches, farms and rural landscapes; and
• Manage impacts of growth in outdoor recreation.
Cindy Williams, co-lead with County Commissioner Greg Felt of Envision Chaffee County, the entity that is the impetus behind the proposal, said the goal would be to treat 2 percent of forested public lands, about 4,000 acres, in the county each year.
Responsibility for maintaining public lands in the county rests with the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Managment and state of Colorado. But, Felt said, the agencies do not have the budget or the staff to properly maintain lands under their jurisdiction.
An example of how funding would be used is the current project on Monarch Pass. In concert with the U.S. Forest Service, a number of entities have joined forces in an effort to remove beetle-killed dead standing trees to improve forest health, reduce the danger of wildfires and protect water supplies.
Williams said various entities, including the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District, Monarch Mountain, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District and Pueblo and Colorado Springs water utilities, are supporting the project.
Monarch Pass is the headwaters of the South Arkansas River, which is a source of water for the city of Salida and dozens of irrigators.
Mitigation work, she said, would protect towns, water supplies, water infrastructure, the recreation economy, wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Felt said Chaffee County has contributed $48,000 from the Conservation Trust Fund to the program.
The idea behind this element of the sales tax, he said, “is to leverage interests of other water-related organizations” who have an interest in water quality and the resource.
If the county puts $500,000 from the proposed conservation tax toward forest mitigation work, Felt said the goal would be to generate an additional $5 million from other sources.
“The goal,” Felt said, “is not to spend a million dollars a year on conservation, but to leverage that into $5 million” to benefit the county.
He said if there is local interest, the county will be able to do more by drawing money from other organizations and agencies.
Problems with forests in the county are getting worse. “At one time we might have said this is just the way it is,” Felt said, adding that he cannot “just sit here and do nothing. I can’t imagine just standing by when we can do something.”
The additional sales tax, he said, will hurt some people, “but overall I believe it’s a good investment to make.”
Williams said the net result of the tax would be to bring additional dollars through grants and participating partners into the county to be used to benefit county resources.
Williams said representatives of agencies and foundations she has talked to about the county conservation project have said they typically do not see communities coming together like this, including governments, businesses and citizens.
The Gates Family Foundation, she said, is monitoring the county as a possible development model with new tools for other Western states.
Felt said Envision has “blown out of the water” representatives of foundations and government agencies who have become aware of the project and now want to play a part in the program as it evolves.