Photo by Bill Trimarco

“I’ve Got Them Non-Profit Funding Blues”

Sadly, that is not the title of my new hit single, but rather a state of mind many of us struggle with on a day-to-day basis. Building fire adapted communities does not happen by itself – it requires funding and capital; a spark so to speak that initiates the process. Unfortunately, sometimes that spark is initiated by a devastating wildfire and requires community organizing to draw people together to identify funding sources and build resiliency in the community.  Organizing community members can occur through different avenues.  Many fire protection districts have wildland fire coordinators and some have programs that invest in building fire adapted communities.  At the county level, there is usually a department tasked with emergency management. And some counties go a step further and help prepare the residents for wildfire.  Although it seems there are never enough funds, State and Federal resources are available. Most of those, however, are earmarked for suppression and emergency response, with a much smaller portion, if any, allocated for prevention and mitigation.

So how do communities build resilience and organize their efforts?

The simple answer is that many non-profit groups exist solely for this purpose. In Southwest Colorado, most of the impetus for building fire adapted communities comes from the non-profit sector. Wildfire Adapted Partnership (WAP, formerly FireWise of SW CO) has existed since 2003, and works in a five-county region of Colorado. WAP has an executive director with a few part time coordinators doing administration, education, outreach, community planning and implementation assistance. The field coordinators are split geographically across counties: one for La Plata (pop. 56,000), one for Archuleta (pop. 13,000) and one for Montezuma, Dolores and San Juan counties (combined pop. 27,000).  Much of the work centers around coordination of a neighborhood volunteer “Ambassador” program that helps educate and motivate residents to lead their neighbors.  Quite often the implementation consists of grant funded reimbursement programs for private land mitigation work.

Roadside chipping

Roadside chipping in Rafter J subdivision, in neighboring La Plata County, CO. Photo credit: Lou Fontana

Funding these coordination operations however is a challenge. Most of the State and Federal grant funding opportunities are for on the ground treatments rather than the collaborative outreach and administrative efforts that make those treatments possible. Many funders often look at mitigation and fire adapted community building as a function of local government rather than an opportunity for grant-funded outreach coordination. This simple misunderstanding can have devastating effects on community resilience and organizing efforts.

Local government does however play a crucial role in helping residents take responsibility for living more safely with fire. When community members engage in strengthening relationships and building city and county partnerships, good work happens. Both Montezuma and La Plata counties contribute in significant ways to support WAP in its resiliency building efforts.  As the resident WAP coordinator for Archuleta County, I continue to work on garnering support and building potential partnerships with local government. I hope that what I have learned in this process can help others along their path towards sustained and successful funding support.

Navigating SRS and the importance of a strong network 

Back in 2012, I learned firsthand the importance of a strong network but also the hard lessons of navigating a complex federal statute.  One of my fellow members of a local NGO had just learned that the county had a substantial amount of Federal funds that they needed to allocate to a Title III program within the next month, or otherwise lose the funds all together.  These funds were part of the Secure Rural Schools Act which provides payments for counties that have large portions of land under Federal management. Secure Rural Schools payments come in three forms: Title I payments, which comprise roughly 80% of SRS funding, go directly to counties and must be invested in either schools or roads; Title II allocations utilize a proportion of retained funds from commodity sales within the county to be applied to special projects on federal lands. Additionally, locally appointed Resource Advisory Committees (RACs), participate in determining the projects that are supported by Title II funds; and Title III funds can be used for search and rescue operations, Firewise Communities, and Community Wildfire Protection Plans. However, if no RAC is in place or the county has a hard time filling RAC positions, it could functionally stall out attempts to spend the money all together. And even if there is a RAC in place, there isn’t a guarantee that RAC funding requests will be approved.

Fortunately, in our case, WAP partnered with the local NGO to quickly put together a proposal submitted to the County Commissioners.  The end result: both groups were funded with Title III funds.  However, subsequent years weren’t as successful for us. The following year, Archuleta County was able to successfully allocate SRS funds for Title I road improvements but none were allocated for our county’s Firewise programs.

community assessment that was conducted in Archuleta County

Part of a community assessment that was conducted in Archuleta County in 2019. It is indicative of the overgrown right of way in an at risk subdivision, in the Lower Blanco subdivision, where we did some fuels mitigation. Photo credit: Bill Trimarco

But I realize I’m not alone in this struggle. I’ve heard from colleagues across the country with tales of funds returned because they didn’t realize they had the money until the last minute.  In one of those cases, word spread through the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership that WAP had experience with saving Title III funds and was called in to help out in a similar circumstance in northern New Mexico.  Within a few weeks, a plan was developed and approved by the county commissioners and $1.2 million dollars was allocated to a county-wide Firewise program, just in the nick of time.

SRS has been an important program for local Firewise work and county budgets, but Congressional reauthorization of the program has been a struggle for the last few years. Although originally intended as a time-limited program, it has become an important part of county budgets and local projects.

Ultimately, we learned that, for now, there are federal funds available for this kind of work and local support and approval is necessary to access those funds. (Editor’s note: Navigating the complexity of federal programs like SRS, can be a challenge for county governments, and an internal champion for fire adaptation work can really help when it comes to funding prioritization. Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition is a great organization to connect with if you are looking to learn more about SRS or get more involved and learn more about the policy and funding prioritization process.)

Taking our relationships one step further

So, for the last few years, we have tried a different approach.  We put together a team of staff from WAP and the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP) who do most of the education, outreach and private lands work in the area. We got on the work schedule of the Board of County Commissioners and invited some of our partners to share some successes and positive outcomes that our joint team provided to the greater community.  Among these supporters was our district State Forester and a former State Senator. Together, we were able to showcase impressive numbers of acreage and homes protected because of the Firewise program.  Through this effort, we received a portion of our initial request, resulting in $5000 each in funding support for WAP and SJHFHP.

The following year that approach did not work so well with new commissioners, leaving us scrambling for ways to make up that loss in outreach and education. So back to the drawing board we went.

Looking for funding support beyond SRS

This year we gathered information on all private lands work in Archuleta County.  We distilled out how much of that was directly attributed to efforts from our two non-profits.  We showed that NRCS was the only other agency supporting private lands work and that their EQIP funding could not be used within 200 feet of a residence.  We were able to clearly show that our work was happening in those 200 foot zones of imperative defensible space.  We used data from Headwaters Economics and from the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest Fire reports to demonstrate with strong graphs and visuals what short and long term losses could be in a community similar to ours.  We calculated how much money the mitigation work we had already done would save the community in the event of a catastrophic wildfire. Over the last seven years, this amounted to almost $500 million dollars in potential suppression costs and long-term losses to the county.  The amount of money that had been paid to contractors for the work done was also in the millions.

We formatted and presented the information in a way that offered a clear and concise picture of what a catastrophe would look like for our communities.  In total, it took 20 minutes of their time with questions and comments included.  In the end, the county decided to not allocate any funding to our programs due to other funding needs in the county.

Turning our failures into lessons learned

So, what lessons are we learning in these repeated funding setbacks? There are five main lessons that come to mind:

  1. We are part of a strong community of people who care about building fire adapted and resilient communities. Even through defeat, we are not alone in our pursuit. This starts with our Neighborhood Ambassadors. They are the most vulnerable to wildfire and the ones who are our strongest advocates in building a fire adapted community.  They help inform and educate neighbors to reach out to local government officials to ask: “What is our county doing to protect homes from wildfire?”
  2. We now have visual data to support our cause. We have a better picture of our efforts and potential to produce positive outcomes in these critical defensible spaces with concrete data to support our work. Thanks to our partners and networks, we have a new set of datasets and visual tools to help tell our story, support the efforts of our work, and potentially bring in new funding sources. We are able to more effectively educate residents on wildfire threats and how to create defensible space around their homes.
  3. We’ve invested in strong partnerships across diverse organizations. In our area, that is the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership (SJHFHP) and the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership (The 2-3-2). The Headwaters group is mostly in Archuleta County and its members include the US Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service, Pagosa Fire Protection District, numerous outdoor groups, Weminuche Audubon Society, NRCS, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Chama Peak Land Alliance, Watershed Enhancement Partnership, private residents and more.  This partnership has a long history and proven record of cooperative planning and projects that has gotten the attention of the administrators in Washington, D.C. It is often cited as an example of the type of collaborative work that is needed nationwide. Many of those same partners are also involved with the 2-3-2.  This partnership is much larger geographically and spans two states (CO & NM), which includes three rivers across two watersheds.  Members also include the San Juan NF, Rio Grande NF, Carson NF, USFS Region 2 & 3, New Mexico State Forestry, The Nature Conservancy, private industry, Trout Unlimited, and many more. Another valuable partnership has been the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.  We have been able to benefit from others and share what we know through this network on a national scale. On a statewide level, Fire Adapted Colorado (FACO) strives to pull together efforts and consistent messaging about wildfire.
  4. Work happens at the speed of trust. A lot of trust has been developed through these partnerships and it translates to the partners being able to share ideas and resources to actually get things done. One of our next action items in Archuleta County will be to renew and increase our efforts to encourage the County Commissioners to take part in these discussions.
  5. Expanding our reach. A growing partnership called Resilient Archuleta is focused on social, economic and environmental resilience in the face of climate change. This is a new audience that wants to be engaged.  A fire adapted community is one of their prime goals.

What are the biggest take-aways for us?

  • Nurture your network. Partners are an immensely valuable asset.
  • Tell your story. Offer a way to visually display your efforts and to translate them in a clear and digestible way that others can utilize. If legislators aren’t listening, share your story with your fellow constituents and build a strong grassroots effort to help inform and educate a broader audience, and ultimately a broader support network.
  • Be steady and persistent. Do your homework and stay informed about grant opportunities. Those of us here in this community are in it for the long haul.
  • Keep smiling! You are doing amazing work!

We hope these lessons will spark new opportunities for you in a positive way!

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