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The Colorado State Forest Service faces several critical issues, including forest conditions, wildland fire and the wildland-urban interface (WUI), political and administrative changes, and funding.

An aspen grove near Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Forests throughout Colorado regenerate through large-scale disturbance, primarily insects, disease and wildfire. The proximity of people, homes and communities to many of these forests means a catastrophic wildfire or pest epidemic event can affect public protection and values, making fuels mitigation and forest management ever more critical.

The dramatic increase in Colorado’s wildland fire activity over the past decade has precipitated an equally dramatic rise in the fire-related responsibilities and program emphases of the CSFS. In recent years, CSFS personnel also have become heavily engaged in fuels mitigation, both locally and in partnership with forestry-related collaboratives; in state-level coordination of cross-boundary mitigation activities; in fire prevention and related fire-education efforts; and in the expanding administrative responsibilities that accompany each of these activities.

Urban development in wildland areas presents the CSFS with additional fire-related challenges in terms of public protection and land management. Based on the 2018 Colorado Wildfire Risk Assessment, at least half of Colorado residents live in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

Protecting these residents from wildfire requires individual responsibility, as well as technical assistance to help them mitigate hazardous fuels. Community wildfire protection planning offers the most promising opportunity to address wildland-urban interface challenges, because it brings together diverse local interests to discuss their mutual concerns for public safety, community sustainability and natural resources.

Forest conditions will continue to support large-scale wildland fire into the future, and increasing numbers of people will continue moving into wildland settings. These factors, combined with a shift at the national level toward all-hazard incident response, means the CSFS likely will face continued demand for leadership and coordination in the areas of fire prevention education and large-scale cross boundary fuels treatment.

The Colorado State Forest Service is accountable to and influenced by several institutions in which political and administrative change is frequent. Solid external relationships, backed by agency credibility and consistent quality service, are essential to operating successfully in this environment.

As an agency of Colorado State University, the CSFS complies with university business practices, maintains positive relationships with university administrators, and ensures that university officials understand the important role that CSFS plays, despite its non-traditional position within the academic system.

With the establishment of the Division of Forestry in 2000, the CSFS also became more closely linked with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. This relationship has resulted in more critical ties between the CSFS and the governor’s office and staff.

Other key relationships include federal land management agencies (many of whom have oversight for CSFS grant programs), state legislators, county and municipal personnel, and other local, state and national partners. Because of the term limits that affect many of these positions, maintaining strong relationships requires consistent attention over the long-term.

In 2012, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB 1283, which transferred the CSFS Fire Division to the state’s Department of Public Safety, effective July 1, 2012. The primary purpose of the transfer was to streamline the planning, training, public risk messaging and emergency support functions between the departments of local affairs and public safety regarding homeland security and emergency management activities.

Transferring wildland fire command and control operations from Colorado State University to the Colorado Department of Public Safety allows the CSFS to further strengthen its role in providing technical forestry assistance. The role of the CSFS in providing scientifically sound forestry and wildfire prevention education and mitigation information remains central to our mission “to achieve stewardship of Colorado’s diverse forest environments for the benefit of present and future generations.”

The Colorado State Forest Service delivers a diverse range of programs and services using a combination of federal and state dollars. State funds are either self-generated or appropriated from the state general fund. Federal funds are tied to specific requirements outlined by Congress, and many involve cost-sharing and other grant programs that pass money on to private landowners and other non-federal entities. All funds are received and distributed through the business and administrative systems of Colorado State University.

The combination of funding sources the CSFS receives means that annual changes in budgets and appropriations at the state and federal levels have a direct effect on our ability to implement programs. Currently, the greatest challenge in Colorado revolves around the limitations imposed by mandatory spending programs and the Tax Payer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR).

All discretionary state programs are subject to elimination as TABOR spending limits are reached and available dollars are directed to programs with statutorily mandated funding. Higher education, and thus the CSFS, as a service and outreach agency in CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, is poised to absorb a disproportionate share of these cuts.

At the federal level, challenges include increased scrutiny and oversight from Congress and the Office of Management and Budget; large fire costs that threaten and dominate federal program funding and priorities; and changing federal program approaches that result in regional allocation shifts.

Given this operating environment, it is essential that the CSFS maintain the relationships and business practices necessary to sustain a mix and level of funding that allows us to provide outstanding public service and deliver on our strategic priorities.