More than 10.2 million acres of the United States burned last year from wildfires, killing 46 people and causing $16.6 billion in damages. Senator Michael Bennet said the country needs to be more proactive with fire prevention by putting people to work maintaining forests.

On Tuesday, the Colorado Democrat will introduce legislation focused on restoring and maintaining forests, watersheds and rangelands across the West to protect those areas from the threats of climate change, and in turn create jobs. 

As global temperatures rise, certain regions of the world — including the American West — are getting drier, making it easier for fires to burn faster and more intensely. Burned, dry forests are primed for a feedback loop: Dry vegetation ignites easily, releasing carbon dioxide into the air, making the atmosphere more flammable and toxic. 

“Chronic underfunding combined with the hotter, drier conditions, has put the [United States] Forest Service, and also state and local governments, in an impossible position,” Bennet told CBS News. 

He said Congress has paid an “egregious lack of attention” to the issue of wildfire prevention. 

2020 was a record-breaking U.S. wildfire season. In California, the previous annual record for area burned set in 2018 more than doubled; in Colorado, the three largest wildfires on record devastated the state. These fires pollute the air, destroy property, threaten water supplies and endanger wildlife and people.

Bennet’s bill would create an “Outdoor Restoration Fund” to subsidize local efforts that work to maintain forests and watersheds, thereby expanding outdoor access, lowering the risk of wildfires and removing invasive species. 

To fund the initiative, the bill would set aside $40 billion for federal agencies, mostly the Department of Agriculture, to invest in local improvement projects on public, private and tribal land. An additional $20 billion would go to state and local governments to be used to “empower local leaders” working to restore and conserve natural infrastructure. 

“There is nothing that is fiscally responsible about the way we’re currently approaching this. We’re paying for these disasters while they happen rather than taking a proactive approach,” Bennet told CBS News. “I think the current way we’re not managing this is utterly unsustainable.”

Mirroring President Biden‘s messaging, Bennet believes Congress can fight the climate crisis through job creation. Mr. Biden’s $3 trillion infrastructure plan included a commitment to invest in forest and watershed restoration.

Bennet’s office claims the bill could foster more than 2 million jobs. They also say it could generate more than $156 billion in economic “output.”

Forests in the U.S. are too often overlooked as a climate solution, said Kirin Kennedy, deputy legislative director for Public Lands and Wildlife Protection at Sierra Club. Known as “carbon sinks,” dense foliage stores carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere. 

However, Kennedy told CBS News, forests are delicate ecosystems in which something like an invasive species is a nuanced problem.

“We have two conundrums here: We do have large areas where there’s tree die-off due to bark beetle and other things. But then in the midst of that, it still stores a lot of carbon and the soil still stores a lot of carbon.”

Kennedy said that a crucial step of wildfire protection is better manmade infrastructure. Tools such as improved mapping in rural areas, updated evacuation routes and stronger broadband to communicate during emergencies would make wildfire-prone areas more safe.

Bennet said Western members in Congress have an inherent knowledge of how crucial forest management is, not only because they have witnessed the direct damage of wildfires, but also how communities suffer — especially those that count on recreation and tourism to fuel their economies. He says it’s something he has witnessed across his state.

“Incremental change in what we’re doing is not going to be sufficient,” said Bennet. “We’re going to continue to literally burn money through our negligence and we need a strategic plan. We need a shift in priorities and a major investment to tackle this challenge. And I know $60 billion is a lot of money, but the cost of inaction is too great.”

When he introduces the legislation Tuesday, it will have bipartisan, bicameral support with Democratic Colorado Representative Jason Crow and Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson lending their names. A similar version of the bill Bennet introduced in December 2020 had no cosponsors.