dolores river

The sun sets over the Dolores Canyon north of Cortez as rafters sit around their campfire after a June day on the Dolores River.

A partnership being hailed as “unprecedented” is to embark on an ambitious mission: to prepare Colorado for worsening wildfires amid an expanding human presence in the places they burn and the planet’s rising temperatures.

The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative is made up of 30 organizations, including federal land managers, state government officials, utility operators, and nonprofit advocates. The idea is to combine money and minds to combat the West’s most imposing foe.

“Unprecedented is a strong word,” acknowledged Jason Lawhon, who is stewarding the group for the U.S. Forest Service.

But Lawhon, based at the agency’s state headquarters in Lakewood, said “very few, if any, places across the West” would say they’re ready for the next historic blaze. Colorado’s 20 largest wildfires have all been recorded in the past 20 years.

“And that’s what we’re really trying to do, is to do that at a landscape scale,” he said. “So I would say it’s unique what we’re doing now, and it will become unprecedented if we’re successful.”

Their laboratory will be about 750,000 acres across the San Juan National Forest, mountainous land spanning U.S. 160 in southwestern Colorado from Durango to Cortez and Dolores.

In partner meetings over several months last year, two other landscapes dominated conversation: the Upper South Platte and Upper Arkansas river valleys. The threat to the Upper South Platte, particularly around Bailey, Conifer and Evergreen, cannot be overstated, Lawhon said — “similar to what we’re seeing in California.”

But that area along with the Upper Arkansas were receiving ample attention for protection, the partners surmised, while the southwest was often forgotten.

Lawhon said another factor was the prospect of affordable timber removal. In a press release, “an existing wood-products industry” was one project appeal of the southwest, said Cindy Dozier, a Western Slope advocate with Club 20. Another, she said, was ongoing, collaborative efforts that would help “move the needle quickly.”

But the mission there won’t be that quick — it’s expected to last a decade. The Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative has yet to hash out funding.

The southwest “rose to the top,” Dan Gibbs, executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said in the press release. But “we know there is a lot more work to do across Colorado and look forward to harnessing the best practices and methods of this process for more Colorado communities.”

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