Best of the West: Recovery efforts in the wake of Colorado’s Grizzly Creek Fire; wildlife crossing sees early success in Utah; National Parks throughout history

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Nov. 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of The Colorado Sun.

Before Colorado’s Grizzly Creek Fire was even 10% contained, a team of scientists were on the scene, battling alongside firefighters to protect the area’s natural resources.

The 32,631-acre blaze, which began on Aug. 10 of this year, not only threatened the nearby community of Glenwood Springs, but also a critical watershed above the Colorado River, which serves as the city’s water supply, The Colorado Sun reports.

Now that the flames are gone, hydrologists, biologists, geologists, archaeologists, and recreation specialists are on the ground, working to mitigate the damage caused by the fire and protect water systems from expected sediment and debris.

“When you see the kind of collaboration that is represented here, I think it shows what is possible, not just on the back end of a crisis like this but on the front end as well,” said U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who prodded the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) to release millions from the federal Emergency Watershed Protection program.

By early September, Glenwood Springs had $86 million in projects it needed to complete, including upgrading water intake systems and constructing a long-planned bridge that could help residents flee from future wildfires.

In addition to money from the NRCS, many of these projects are being funded by an $8 million loan from the Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB). The CWCB’s emergency loan program, developed in response to 2013 flooding, does not require communities to pay interest for the first three years, which allows time for other grants and federal assistance programs to take effect as well.

“This loan program, with us providing funding up front, is a powerful tool for giving communities the ability to get moving with these projects before the spring runoff, which is critical for Glenwood Springs,” said Matt Stearns, a CWCB project manager. “I think we definitely look at this as a model for success.”

Learn more about the recovery efforts. And check out the latest episode of WGA’s Out West podcast, which highlights how prescribed fire, managed fire, and cultural burning can help prevent catastrophic wildfire events.

Investigating Missing and Murdered Indigenous People: Oklahoma will be the first state to participate in the Tribal Community Response Plan, a new framework designed by the U.S. Department of Justice to coordinate investigations of cases involving missing or murdered Indigenous people. Route Fifty reports that the goal of the pilot project is to create a set of guidelines, including instructions for law enforcement, victim services, community outreach, and public communications. “The first step in achieving justice for missing and murdered Native Americans was acknowledging the injustice of any historical indifference to, or neglect of, these tragic cases,” said U.S. Attorney Trent Shores. “Now, it is time for action to tackle this crisis head-on.” Although the project will begin in the Sooner State, it will soon be expanded to Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, and Oregon as well. Read more.

Wildlife Crossing: Video released by the Utah Department of Transportation shows that the state’s largest wildlife overpass – constructed over Interstate 80 in 2018 – has been an overwhelming success. According to Smithsonian Magazine, the 50-foot wide, 320-foot long crossing is designed to limit collisions between vehicles and animals, which over the past two years have killed 98 deer, three moose, two raccoons, two elk and one cougar. “The benefit is not just to animals, but to drivers as well,” said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason, “From what we can tell, the number of accidents is down dramatically. And we expected it to take several years before the animals got used to using it, so this is great.” Watch recently released footage, which shows moose, deer, and elk crossing the bridge.

Conservation Act: Long championed by Wyoming senators, The America’s Conservation Enhancement (ACE) Act was signed into law this October. Since then, it has received positive feedback from legislators, conservation groups, and state agencies alike, The Casper Star-Tribune reports. “The ACE Act helps protect elk, mule deer, bison and so many more amazing species in Wyoming,” said U.S. Senator John Barrasso, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “[It] establishes a task force to address the growing problem of chronic wasting disease, compensates ranchers for lost livestock from predator attacks, and helps combat dangerous invasive species.” The legislation was first introduced in December of 2019, garnering support from both sides of the aisle, as well as ranchers, wildlife advocates, and hunters. Here’s why it’s been so successful.

National Parks: In 1861, photographer Carleton E. Watkins traveled to what would one day become Yosemite National Park in California, armed with roughly 2,000 pounds of photography equipment. His goal, according to Atlas Obscura, was to capture the natural beauty of now-famous features of the park, such as El Capitan, Mariposa Grove, and Cathedral Rocks. “These earliest photographs of Yosemite resulted in a body of work that was to shape one of the early acts of environmentalism in U.S. policy,” said Bob Ahern, Getty Images’ Director of Archive Photography. Ahern’s comments refer to the Yosemite Valley Grant Act in 1864, which helped lay the foundation of the country’s National Park System. Although the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake destroyed many of Watkins’s snapshots, a portion of his legacy lives on within the Getty Images Archive. Click here to view the surviving pictures.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated regularly)

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