Forest Service readies for financial injection in Sublette

PINEDALE – Millions of dollars will soon be injected into the U.S. Forest Service throughout Sublette County, specifically the Bridger-Teton National Forest, because of the recent infrastructure and reconciliation bills moving through Washington, D.C.

Those funds will not be among the first allocated, and likely will not be awarded in 2022, but will eventually go to funding various purposes throughout the county. That’s why the Sublette County Board of Commissioners, representatives from U.S. Forest Service and even Rep. Albert Sommers met inside the commissioners’ chambers on Dec. 21. They were joined by some on Zoom to talk about the best ways to prepare for all of the projects that will begin when the money comes in.

Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor led the discussion, going through a few key features that the infrastructure bill will provide the county.

“It’s an astounding amount of funding for the Forest Service,” she said.

Most notably, O’Connor said the major intent of the legislation is to increase the forest’s ability to treat and maintain the forest’s health in preventing wildfires. Collectively, there are billions of dollars to be spent within the Forest Service and Department of the Interior over the next five years.

She said funds will also go to road and trail mediation, volunteer fire crews, infrastructure preparation, mechanical maintenance and invasive plant management. Funds will likely increase staffing of Forest Service fire crews. There will also be some amount of funding for recreation.

O’Connor said the Forest Service is look- ing to partner with other entities for some of these projects. Sublette County has a long- standing working relationship with local forestry, one that gave many at the table promise for these various projects.

“Overall what we’re looking at is additional resources that we probably haven’t seen in a while,” O’Connor said. “We are really trying to figure out how we get prepared to use this.”

Highest population numbers and places with highest risk will likely be the first places to receive funding allocation. That would be places in California and Oregon, where wildfires hit heavy in the summer, as well as the surrounding Denver area. O’Connor said that while funds may not be injected locally next year, they wanted to make sure preparation work was made now so they can hit the ground running when funding comes.

Commission chair Joel Bousman said he’s been involved in similar conversations. Some of them were with Shad Cooper, fire warden with Sublette County Unified Fire, and Mike Henn, district manager of Sublette County Conservation District, who were also in attendance. Bousman agreed shared stewardship and an active forest collaborative was the best path forward.

“Our tentative plan is to have our collaborative meeting in January, maybe have you make this same presentation to the collaborative in January, and start figuring out to take maximum advantage of the opportunity,” Bousman said. “What can the county can do, for example, and what needs to happen.”

Bousman said it was important to involve private industry and offer long enough contracts. He also stressed the importance for communication between all members of the collaborative on where and when projects need to be started and completed, like with road upgrades, for example.

Projects on Union Pass and Green River Lakes Road have already been discussed at previous commissioners’ meetings and have been designated as high priorities for road rehabilitation projects. Bousman reiterated the importance of getting those taken care of so, possibly, crews can use them for additional projects.

Commissioner Doug Vickrey asked about decommissioning roads and if that was a possibility. O’Connor agreed it was important to maintain high-use roads and any possible decommissioning would not happen without public input. Any decommissioning without public input would happen on “vigilante” trails and/or roads that were created without Forest Service approval.

Cooper said he’s currently revising the community wildfire protection plan, which would directly apply to some of the areas talked about. He said that should be completed in the summer.

Henn said the conservation district will continue working and seeking information to relay back to the collaborative on the best path forward.

Barry Tye, on Zoom, said the Forest Service is considering hiring seasonal crews to complete projects sooner, when the time comes. Rich Stems, also on Zoom, agreed with all that was said before on the importance of planning and communication. Since it is such a large infrastructure bill, it’s important to have plans in place before funds arrive so projects can move in a timely manner.

Rep. Sommers added that Gov. Mark Gordon has set aside money for fire management and that a possible state-match plan would have to be relayed to him soon so he could speak to lawmakers before the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee meets to trim financials. Sommers then said there will be a lot of one-time dollars presented to for the upcoming Legislative Session and if any of those would be needed for projects like these, he would have to know soon so he could try to get some funds reserved.

Discussions during the meeting pertained mostly to Forest Service land and areas covered by the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The Department of Interior will also receive a sum of federal dollars, which would also lead to increased communication among the county and local Bureau of Land Management officials to determine any repairs or projects on BLM land within Sublette County.