Department of Interior Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor visited Grand Junction on Monday, where she announced new rules to increase rural access to broadband internet and toured the Bureau of Land Management Grand Junction Air Services facility, which provides aircraft to fight wildfires.
MacGregor began her day touring a broadband site before announcing the changes at the BLM headquarters in Grand Junction. The proposed rule changes are intended to make it easier for the industry to place infrastructure, manage trees, promote public safety and avoid fire hazards.
“High-speed internet connectivity is essential for education, economic opportunity, health and public safety — especially as we continue to respond to the challenges of COVID-19,” MacGregor said in a statement. “Facilitating greater broadband access and reducing wildfire risks for the benefit of rural and underserved communities is truly a bipartisan issue, and I hope these common-sense rules are carried forward by the incoming administration.”
There will be a 60-day comment period on the rules in which the public can make comments. MacGregor said she had seen how broadband access can be helpful during emergency situations like with wildfires while she was touring the BLM site at Grand Junction Regional Airport on Monday.
MacGregor noted how the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act was being used locally to provide funds to help with the regional fire response. One project is to upgrade a retaining pond at the site. The pond, which is used for firefighting retardant, is about 25 years old. It will be dredged and the liner will be replaced, MacGregor said.
“I think it’s really exciting because, as we’ve said, this is one of the most astounding conservation acts that we’ve seen in a generation,” MacGregor said. “The amount of funds that are going to come from oil and gas development and be reinvested not just in our national parks systems, but also in sites like this needs to get more attention.”
BLM Colorado State Director Jamie Connell, BLM Colorado Upper Colorado River District Manager Greg Larson and BLM Colorado Grand Junction Field Manager Greg Wolfgang, among others, joined MacGregor at the airport and provided information on the recent Colorado wildfires and the operations of the Grand Junction site. She toured several of the buildings and was able to see some state-of- the-art equipment, including a drone used to help with firefighting.
MacGregor praised policy accomplishments made during the Trump administration regarding wildfires. She said they were able to increase the number of days seasonal workers could be employed from six months to 270 days. With the longer fire season, she said having more firefighters available throughout the year was an important step.
“Wildfire season as we saw last year started early and extended far into the fall,” MacGregor said. “If you think about that and how we constantly need to have that seasonal workforce and those seasonal wildfire fighters here, I think that will make a big difference and hopefully allow our team to keep the personnel on that they need so they don’t get overstretched.”
Prescribed burns and other preventative treatments were discussed during her tour, and MacGregor said those proactive measures are critical to helping fight fires in the future. She said the Department of the Interior and BLM put an extra emphasis on preventative measures.
“I think BLM should be praised for what they have been able to accomplish, not just in prescribed burns, but in their treatments in general and not just in 2020, but in the years leading up after we asked them and made it a priority to do a lot of treatments,” MacGregor said. “Hopefully it will have an impact and give our teams the toehold they need to fight fire better in the future.”
The firefighting resources in Grand Junction are part of an interagency partnership between the BLM and U.S. Forest Service.
MacGregor said those partnerships are key to being successful, whether it is in firefighting or on projects like the Palisade Plunge mountain bike trail, which she also visited Monday. That project crosses public lands controlled by multiple agencies and local governments.
“When I came to the department in 2017, there was a lot of public input from western communities that they felt ignored from Washington,” MacGregor said. “I think having the Grand Junction (BLM) headquarters out here shows an extreme attention to partnering with local western communities.”