Fire mitigation in High Park Fire area delayed as monsoon season begins

Federal dollars held up by endangered mouse

LARIMER COUNTY, Colo. - After three months of waiting for federal dollars to arrive in Larimer County, fire mitigation has not started but the rainy season has.

Larimer County's recovery manager Suzanne Bassinger said the process to received federal funding has been long and frustrating, but they are getting closer to approving all the projects and starting work. In March 2013, Congress approved $10 million in funding to Larimer County fire recovery. The money didn't arrive until mid-June and has since been stuck with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"Part of the hold up was no work could be initiated - including any kind of design or feasibility studies - until the contracts were signed, and the money was in hand at the NRCS," Bassinger said. "Now we're going through the process of contracts, environmental and cultural clearances that are needed for ground disturbing activities."

During the last few weeks, the NRCS and the county have been working with contractors who will lay wood mulch on roughly 2,000 acres of private land in the burn zone. NRCS Conservation engineer John Andrews said they've also been reviewing the areas to make sure there won't be a negative impact on the environment.

"One thing is whenever there's a federal action, we examine the environmental affects of those actions," Andrews said. "In the High Park fire, the Preble's mouse's potential habitat is along creek beds, so we need to understand our work may or may not affect the mouse habitat."

One of the areas where mitigation was delayed because of concerns about the habitat is Skin Gulch, which runs parallel to Stove Prairie Road in Poudre Canyon. Debris flowing downstream there threatens to undercut Highway 14, which is the main road in the canyon. The NRCS submitted an assessment to Fishing and Wildlife in early June in order to get the project approved, but they're still waiting on a response.

Meanwhile, Bassinger said the contracts and approval are currently in the works and they hope to start work within a few weeks.

"It's not a case of somebody dropping the ball, it's just that, for one thing it's a lot of money. It's going to be $7.5 million in construction funds," Bassinger said. "We were like, well the bill was passed in March, we want to see the check the next day, but that's not how it works, it's too much money to expect to move like that."

Bassinger said they will be laying only wood mulch this year. Last year, the water providers including Fort Collins, Greeley and Tri-District paid nearly $4 million out of their budgets to pay for straw to be spread on private property.

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