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Governor announces plan to deal with beetle-kill trees

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Work by Witwer, Kopp key in package of bills

By The Staff

On Nov. 12, Gov. Bill Ritter announced plans to deal with the epidemic of Colorado trees killed by bark beetles, while at the same time giving money to local communities and stimulate economic activity.

The Healthy Forests/Vibrant Communities Act of 2009 will be introduced in the coming legislative session and will include a bundle of bills to accomplish those goals. If passed, the measures would be funded with $5.5 million in severance tax revenues, which are paid by energy companies.

"I'm glad to have the governor's interest, and his involvement will help us get the funding we need into the Front Range communities," said state Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton.

Kopp and outgoing state Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Genesee, brought the issue to the forefront during the last legislative session. The two held a series of meetings in their districts last year and came up with several ideas that appear in the Healthy Forests/Vibrant Communities Act of 2009. The two also pushed to create the Committee on Wildfire Issues in Wild Land-Urban Interface Areas, an interim legislative committee that met six times over the summer. The bipartisan body codified Kopp’s and Witwer's ideas, along with adding some new ones, to come up with the act.

"We have a lot of details to cover as to how this moves forward as a package of bills," Kopp said. "But we'll work out the details as we go. Having the governor's help with the funding is a good place to start."

Kopp said he's worried that most of the focus of the Healthy Forests/Vibrant Communities Act will be deep in the mountains, not on Jefferson County.

"I've spent the last year-plus with a focus on wildland-urban interface issues, and so much of (it) is up and down the Front Range, and so much is in Jefferson County," Kopp said. "I'm concerned that this package could wind up drawing critical money from the very need we've been working to address the last couple of years."

Kopp added that he was worried about politics dictating where the funding would go, and that he wanted to have the state Division of Forestry set the priorities for any funding involved with mitigating wildfire risk.

"The way we're going about it now, I'm not confident that we've removed it from politics," Kopp said. He's planning to pull his three bills that were part of the act away from the governor's efforts and run them "on a parallel track." He said that will allow him to seek alternativefunding, which could help refocus the efforts on Jefferson County.

"As a wildland firefighter, I'm grateful that we dodged another bullet and escaped a potential catastrophic mega-fire this season," said state Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Breckenridge. "This proposal will help make our communities safer by reducing the fire threats from dense stands of trees, especially those that have been killed by the ravaging bark beetle."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.