U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mitt Romney reintroduced a bill this week that would aid in wildfire cleanup.
If passed, the bill would direct the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take measures to make the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Emergency Watershed Protection programs function for local restoration and rehabilitation efforts more efficiently.
“Last year, Colorado faced the three largest wildfires in our history,” said Bennet, D-Colo., in a news release. “When communities in Colorado and across the West are knocked off their feet by devastating wildfires, they need a steadfast partner in Washington.”
The bill, titled the Making Access to Cleanup Happen (MATCH) Act, was first introduced in January 2020. It has also been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. John Curtis, R-Utah, and John Garamendi, D-Calif.
Under the MATCH Act, the Natural Resources Conservation Service would encourage and allow Emergency Watershed Protection sponsors to partake in watershed rehabilitation activities without administrative obstacles or burdens. According to the USDA website, EWP sponsors include cities, counties, towns, conservation districts or federally recognized Native American tribes or tribal organizations.
Landowners can seek help from sponsors getting assistance from EWP programs to aid in activities such as removing debris from roads and bridges, correcting damaged drainage facilities or improving conservation practices. The MATCH Act would make the process of completing such efforts easier.
The MATCH Act would require the USDA to provide potential project sponsors with a list of activities they could begin without approval. The legislation would allow potential sponsors, such as towns and cities, to circumvent long approval processes and take measures to mitigate the negative impacts of wildfires more quickly.
“The La Plata County Board of County Commissioners appreciates this effort to correct a flaw in the Emergency Watershed Protection program that delays the critical work needed to protect life and property in the wake of flooding and debris flow,” La Plata County Manager Chuck Stevens said in a news release. “The property owners who were affected by the post-416 Fire flooding events in 2018 would have benefited greatly from expedited access to resources to protect their homes.”
In March, Bennet and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., sent a letter to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack urging him to support wildfire recovery efforts in Colorado. In the letter, the senators explained how Colorado had been affected by wildfires in the past year and highlighted how the effectiveness of programs such as the NRCS and the EWP is limited by funding and administrative issues.
They encouraged Vilsack to address the shortcomings as head of the USDA.
If passed, the MATCH Act would aid in making watershed protection and recovery programs more effective by addressing the issues listed in the senators’ letter to Vilsack.
“The Emergency Watershed Protection program is an essential resource for post-fire recovery, but often Coloradans face challenges with local match requirements and delays in project approval,” Bennet said. “The bipartisan MATCH Act would remove hurdles to securing funding and help communities act quickly to mitigate damage and protect their watersheds and infrastructure.”
The MATCH Act will be referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. Bennet is a member of the committee and a chairman of its Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry and Natural Resources.
Grace George is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.