Opinion by Ryan Lance
Ryan Lance, Director of Office of State Lands and Investments
Nearly 500,000 acres in Wyoming were impacted by wildland fires this year. Because many in Wyoming were so heavily affected by these fires, with even more impacts on the horizon in the absence of active post-fire rehabilitation efforts, Governor Mead and the other members of the Board of Land Commissioners asked state agencies to develop a plan to set Wyoming on a path to renew these lands.
In the past, the Office of State Lands and Investments has worked primarily to provide assistance to grazing lessees affected by fire through grazing fee reductions. With the scope of the damage from wildfire this year and potential for even more devastation from erosion and weeds going forward, members of the public addressed the Board and asked if something more could be done. With the assistance of the Wyoming State Forester Bill Crasper, Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Executive Director Bob Budd and other key players, including Wyoming’s conservation districts, we were able to present a plan, which was endorsed by the Board of Land Commissioners, to start the long process of reclaiming and repairing not only state trust lands, but also private lands.
With the health of our watersheds already impacted by the fires and an even greater risk of damage going forward, a great deal of discussion focused on priority areas where erosion, sedimentation and degradation could influence our water.
As private landowners are keenly aware, the extensively burned areas include drainages with live water, which will deliver sediment directly into adjacent water bodies. Excessive sediment delivery has the potential to adversely affect the water quality of communities that depend on these waters as a source of drinking water, irrigation and livestock water and wildlife and fish habitats. Heavy rains in some burned areas have already resulted in significant localized erosion and sedimentation in some drainages. Because of Wyoming’s long history of leading in the realm of active natural resource management, it will come as little surprise that significant efforts have already been undertaken to help to limit erosion. Smokebuster crews worked diligently, following the Oil Creek and other fires, to implement control measures that will serve Wyoming well into the future.
During agency discussions, Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser regularly expressed his concern that natural plant recovery is expected to be slow in many areas due to the extensive amount of land that was so intensively burned with a near complete loss of vegetation. He noted that the addition of hydrophobic soil conditions will cause the water to run off instead of infiltrating into the ground only further hampering re-vegetation in some areas.
As I noted earlier, grazing lessees utilizing state lands that have been impacted by wildfire can be eligible for a rental reduction on fire-affected parcels. Understanding that such reductions were only part of the equation and that other resources would be required to protect and reclaim trust lands, the Board of Land Commissioners approved $901,395 from the Trust Land Preservation and Enhancement Account to be dedicated to such efforts.
In addition to the funding allocated by the Board, the Wyoming State Forestry Division has also received a 319 Grant from the Wyoming Department of Environment Quality and the Non-Point Source Board. This grant will help staff implement post-wildfire rehabilitation efforts on Wyoming forest lands to help mitigate nonpoint source pollution to surface waters. The Division has already started the process to secure 319 funds for fire rehabilitation efforts next year as well. Further, the Forestry Division has applied for a U.S. Forest Service State and Private Competitive Grant that, if funded, will provide monies for landowner assistance for post fire restoration.
The Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust Board also recently took action that would allow conversion of certain funds for use to help rehabilitate wildfire-affected lands. The Board acted quickly to move funding that had previously been awarded for prescribed fire projects to post-wildfire erosion and weed control efforts. The Trust Account Board also allocated “emergency” funds for restoration efforts for the Squaw Peak fire of 2011.
According to Bob Budd, executive director to the Trust Board, the Board acted promptly and decisively to have funds available to assist with processing outside funds and working to award grants to get projects underway as soon as possible. I very much appreciated that Board’s understanding that the work we must engage is time sensitive to get ahead of erosion, the spread of invasive species and other issues. The beauty of the Trust program has proven to be the ability of the Board to act in a timely fashion to address these and other issues.
To access the funding approved by the Board of Land Commissioners for trust lands, the 319 and other funding awarded to the Wyoming State Forestry Division please contact Bill Haagenson or John Crisp at 307-777-7586. For funds approved by the Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, please contact Bob Budd at 307-777-8024. I would strongly suggest that you work with your local conservation district to develop projects for funding, as they can work to ensure that we configure projects that most efficiently, practically and scientifically address impacts with these limited resources.
While these grant proposals and approved funds will not satisfy all needs, it is a start. Thankfully, Governor Mead and the Wyoming Legislature robustly funded emergency fire suppression efforts to ensure that state and local firefighters had the resources they needed to protect and save lives, homes and private, state and even federal lands. Further, their investment in the State Helitack Program stopped most fires before they could cause significant damage. Absent such investments, the damage caused by wildfires this past year would have been more severe by several orders of magnitude leaving us with even more daunting reclamation and rehabilitation efforts.