ALAMOSA– Dan Gibbs, Executive Director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was in Alamosa on Tuesday where he and two members from his department – Assistant Director for Water Policy Kelly Romero-Heaney and Communications Director Chris Arend - made time for a conversation with the Valley Courier.
Meanwhile, other key personnel, including an assistant director overseeing energy, climate change and forestry, the number two person on the Colorado Water Conservation Board and a staff member in a newly created position to manage ARPA funding met with RGWCD General Manager Cleave Simpson and the other subdistricts.
“For me to have a good sense of what issues are popping up in certain areas,” Gibbs said, “I like to get on the road, see what’s going on, meet with my staff across the state and see how bills that have passed are impacting people.”
As the person at the helm of the DNR, Gibbs is responsible for the state divisions addressing some of the most frontline, impactful areas in the state, including those with great relevance to the valley related to water and forestry management.
First appointed to the position by Governor Polis in 2019, Gibbs’ diverse personal history seems well suited to the scope of what his job requires. With roots in Gunnison where he was raised, Gibbs left Colorado for Washington D.C. where he spent time on the staff of former Colorado U.S. Senator Mark Udall.
Gibbs’ political career continued with his election to the Colorado state legislature, where he became known for his work on the environment and transportation. His time in the legislature was followed by appointment and then election to the Colorado state Senate, representing a district that straddled “both sides of the Continental Divide”.
But in a move that would, at least, seem to belie any notion of being a career politician, Gibbs, who has also worked as an outdoor guide and wildland firefighter, left the senate to return to the mountains to serve as a county commissioner in Summit County, a position that allowed him the flexibility to focus on the issues he was most passionate about.
As commissioner, Gibbs focused on natural resource issues and, with 12 years as a wildland firefighter, forest health, wildfires, wildfire mitigation and, of course, water.
Against that backdrop, from the time he first took his position with the DNR, Gibbs has looked at issues “through the lens of climate change”, including the creation of a high-level assistant director of climate change. He also set forestry and wildfire issues as a priority as “the status quo wasn’t working.”
Empowered by the governor to work with federal partners, Gibbs also created a new division in the DNR called CSWAP – the Colorado Strategic Wildfire Action Program – staffed with two individuals who work with communities to figure out which locations are best to serve as defensible spaces and bringing in $25 million of new funding to create new SWIFT (State Wildfire Inmate Fire Teams), quadrupling the former capacity while also partnering with the state conservation corps. The result is a balance of both preventing and managing wildfires.
“We’re bringing in more people and more money than the state has had before for forest health and wildfire preparedness.”
Another key priority for Gibbs has been an updated Colorado Water Plan, which Gibbs says will be released in December. Also reflective of his focus on water and its relationship to climate change, the new plan will include updated climate change projections, which have not been present in the water plan prior to now.
“It only makes sense, right?” he says. “Being able to project the impact of climate change is essential to an effective water plan.”