New Opportunities for Tackling the Wildfire Crisis

Communities Forests Investments Nov 29, 2023
Genevieve Bennett

On November 1st and 2nd, 2023, Forest Trends convened the Wildfire and Forests Innovation Summit in Denver, Colorado together with co-hosts and sponsors the USDA Forest Service, Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Forum, Colorado State Forest Service, and the Gates Family Foundation.

This was an incredible gathering of Front Range leadership across business, industry, finance, government (from national leadership to county commissioners), philanthropy, conservation, community groups, and media to identify new innovative business opportunities that will help protect Colorado and preserve the essential values that forests provide. The goal of the Summit was to bring together an unusual group of stakeholders around innovative models to get forest restoration work done faster and at larger scale – and we think we achieved that. Here’s a recap of key insights from the Summit.

Catastrophic wildfires profoundly threaten Colorado’s quality of life, economy, and future opportunities.

Colorado leadership is rising to the task. The State of Colorado has mapped out an ambitious set of strategies in its Forest Action Plan for tackling the estimated 2.4 million acres of forests in Colorado in urgent need of treatment. The Forest Service, through its Wildfire Crisis Strategy, has set a goal of treating 36,100 acres in the Arapaho- Roosevelt and the Pike-San Isabel National Forests between 2022 and 2024 utilizing funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Both entities emphasize the need for partnership, cross-jurisdictional coordination, and strategically prioritizing fuel treatments.

Colorado has a history of innovation to build on in meeting these challenges, including the pioneering “Forests to Faucets” partnership between Denver Water, the USDA Forest Service, the Colorado Forest Service, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Colorado also is home to a forward-looking Coalition for Mass Timber, and innovative pilots in Steamboat Springs utilizing mass timber for workforce housing. Denver has some of the most progressive mass timber building codes in the country.

Each partner brings to the table their own circles of trust, experience, and tools. Tapping each others’ circles allows us to move faster and in new ways, as Meryl Harrell, Deputy Under Secretary of Natural Resources and Environment at USDA, put it. Yet we are just starting to build many of the key connections between business, government, and communities. Gail Klapper, CEO of the Colorado Forum, put it very well in her opening remarks: “This is a very unusual meeting.” The Summit was designed to be a first stage in building bridges – our hope is that a gathering like this won’t be unusual for much longer. We know we need to move quickly. Convening unusual coalitions is in Forest Trends’ DNA. Please be in touch with us if you have thoughts on follow-on gatherings to the Summit that could be helpful in forging the “stable working relationships” that Lee White, Managing Director at D.A. Davidson, called for as essential to getting things done.

One exciting idea proposed was a Front Range Forest Collaborative linking federal, state, utility, business, tribal, and community stakeholders across the landscape. Likewise, doing more to engage entities that have a stake in forest health, but haven’t historically been at the table: for instance, tribes, the broader business community, and specific actors including health insurance and property insurance, the public health sector, and government entities like the Departments of Transportation and Defense.

Likewise, strategic outreach to build clear social license within the business sector and communities was a frequently cited enabling condition to get forest health treatments done. Forest Trends, the USDA Forest Service, and the strategic communications firm Statler-Nagle are embarking on a new effort to build a comprehensive national strategy to better educate and engage the public on the wildfire crisis.

We also look forward to pursuing communications efforts targeted to the Front Range, including through Colorado Informed with our partner the Colorado Forum, and via new commitments from the Colorado Forum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to supporting expanded communications efforts to the public around forests and wildfire. We also heard several times that there is a need for greater clarity around the specific goals and partnership structures that we are asking would-be partners to step into with us. What is the roadmap, and milestones along the way? What are the forms of partnership most needed – whether that be financial, or political support, or collaboration on communications, or engaging companies’ employees or customer base to get involved. An effective coalition requires a clear vision. A proposed Forest Innovation Fund for the Front Range can be a tool to focus our efforts, and allow private investments to leverage public funds at scale. Forest Trends and partners, like the Colorado Forum, are excited about this idea and are moving it forward – more to come soon. And of course, please be in touch if you are interested in helping us in this work. We see great potential in coordinating fund strategy with targets informed by a new Front Range Forest Collaborative.

We can also roll up our sleeves together to focus on some of those immediate policy and administrative bottlenecks to wildfire solutions – things like ensuring that the biomass energy industry is able to take advantage of federal incentives under the Renewable Fuel Standard program; that Forest Service staff can innovate when it comes to contracting to ensure predictability of supply to the wood innovations industry; that water utilities might be permitted to issue debt finance for investments in “natural infrastructure” and not just grey (engineered) infrastructure; and that pressing challenges like workforce capacity and mill infrastructure stay in focus at a state level.

Of course, many of these interventions would have broad national implications. And – crucially – what works on the Front Range can and should be replicated in other landscapes grappling with the national wildfire crisis.

Our team was incredibly energized by this Summit – we profoundly thank each and every one of the participants for their time, attention, and contributions. We would very much like to hear any insights or connections gained from the Summit, and whether there are ways we could consider working together to develop these further.

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