Finally! Finally, the stars aligned, the moon passed in front of the sun, and the Saguache-Upper Rio Grande Resource Advisory Committee met to recommend a half million dollars’ worth of projects that will benefit the Rio Grande, San Juan and San Isabel National Forests.
The RAC, as the committee is affectionately called, is composed of 15 people representing a diversity of interests. All members, but one, live in the Upper Rio Grande Watershed. The special interests represented include commercial logging, ranching, recreation, culture resources, environmental groups, schools, local government and general public-at-large.
The RAC’s job was to review and recommend projects to be funded with Title II dollars authorized by the Secure Rural Schools Act. By law, the funds can only be used on projects recommended by a majority of the RAC members. The Rio Grande National Forest received the last of the funding in January 2016, but due to attrition, did not have a fully functioning RAC. We knew this day was coming and had started more than two years ago working on the process to approve and fill a new RAC to cover the entire upper Rio Grande area. Finally it all came together.
There were 39 project proposals submitted competing for a bit more than $530,000. The projects did not have to take place on a national forest, but they needed to benefit the portion of the three national forests mentioned above in Conejos, Hinsdale, Rio Grande and Saguache Counties. Forest Service employees, nonprofit groups, counties and the public submitted a wide range of proposals.
It may seem like a fairly easy task for a majority of RAC members to agree on recommending projects to use the Title II funds, but this is a diverse group with diverse interests. To further complicate matters, the RAC members are split into three groups – commercial, recreation/environmental, government – and a majority from each group has to vote for a project for it to be considered an official RAC recommendation. Also, because the funds are allocated by county/forest, the projects need to be recommended within those silos.
The RAC members were up for the challenge and the process went smoothly. Each group prioritized their top projects by county and forest. Several projects were rated high by all three groups, so they were in without disagreement. But, those top projects didn’t use up all the funds, which meant there was some work to be done to get across the finish line. Probing questions were asked, pros and cons were discussed, and then the horse trading began. Eventually, the RAC recommended 27 projects for full or partial funding.
Title II funds are primarily put into grants, agreements and contracts or used for purchasing materials and structures. For example, several projects were recommended that will use grants and agreements to fund youth/young adult trail crews working for nonprofit organizations such as the Southwest Conservation Corps and Colorado Mountain Club. These types of programs get work done on the ground and have the added benefit of connecting youth with their public lands.
Title II funds were also recommended for use to replace two toilets at heavily used trailheads, purchase bear resistant lockers for food storage at two campgrounds, and purchase an aquatic organism passage. The aquatic organism passage can be best described as a specialized culvert that allows fish and other aquatic life to move freely through it.
A full accounting of all the project proposals and those recommended for funding can be viewed at the Saguache-Upper Rio Grande RAC webpage, which is most easily found by clicking on the link on the Rio Grande National Forest homepage at www.fs.usda.gov/riogrande.
None of these projects could receive Title II money without a quorum of RAC members taking time away from their busy days to meet, review and recommend them for funding. These projects will benefit three national forests, four counties, and put people to work. Thank you RAC members!
Mike Blakeman is the public affairs officer for the Rio Grande National Forest. He spends much of his free time scrambling around the mountains with a camera in his hand.