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Healthy Forests & Healthy Water Supply: Innovative Financing Part 2 – An Interview with Paul Summerfelt

Paul Summerfelt

If we talk utility infrastructure and water – we need to look at the source as important as anything. The forest we don’t own is our infrastructure.”

When you ask Paul Summerfelt, the head of Flagstaff’s Wildland Fire Management Division, what led the City’s voters to pass – by 74% – the historic $10 million bond measure to fund the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, he’ll respond, “blind luck!” Or if pushed a little more, he’ll add, “it was a perfect storm!”


What gave Flagstaff the great idea to do the $10 million bond measure?

We had built up a lot of social capital in the community over the past decade, and we’d had a lot of bad fires. Then came the Shultz Fire in 2010 and that really scared people – all of us. And a post-fire study put our post-fire recovery work cost at between $133 and $147 million.

So in March 2012, we got the city department heads together with Forest Service and other key players. None of us were thinking, “bond.” We were looking at models like Santa Fe’s (rate payer fees), and we thought we were at least 18 months away from any decision about a fee.

But at the end of the meeting, the city manager stood up and said, “We’re in. We’re going to bond this.” The timing was perfect – the city had some bonds retiring so there was going to be some capacity to do a new a levy.

How did the City convince the bonding agencies to issue a bond on an asset the City had no control over?

That was the pivotal decision point. The City worked with the outside attorneys and bonding entities and everyone finally said it was a capital project, part of our water infrastructure – water carried the day.

We weren’t bonding for a green forest or for no smoke, but for water. If we talk utility infrastructure and water – we need to look at the source as important as anything. The forest we don’t own is our infrastructure.

What led Flagstaff’s voters to give overwhelming approval for the bond?

A number of factors got us to that point. One major one was that we had already been building social capital since the late 1990s through, among other activities, a wildfire reduction program and the work of the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership.

Once we got the measure on the ballot, we had three months to campaign. The Fire Department can’t advocate but we can inform. The Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership formed the “Yes on 405” campaign with 50 campaign events from July to late October. At each event we said, “let’s spend $10 million now to protect our water supply and avoid events like the Schultz Fire.” People trust the Fire Department and they’d seen the results of the work we had done so far – they got it.

We’re so glad we went the election route – this created awareness and ownership in the community. This voter approval has given us great legitimacy in Washington DC. This resulted in an additional $2 million from other state and federal agencies. There is a true partnership – we’re not just asking or telling a federal agency.

How did you make the water supply to forests connection?

We knew that Santa Fe was doing some stuff in many ways similar to Flagstaff – they have the same fuel type, water sources, etc. So we went to Santa Fe to visit their watershed in June 2011.

We came back and said, “well, our emphasis is on fire and forests but maybe water is a better way to connect to people.” Working with other city departments, we found out that if our two key watersheds burn, the cost of that water would be so much higher, and so much reservoir capacity would be lost that it would get really expensive.

What will be your biggest challenge moving forward?

Delivering. But I’m confident we can. To help with that, we held 20 public workshops to capture all the issues and questions and address them. Now we have a report card that will list exactly what that taxpayer money did.

But the bond money only pays for capital treatment, not to maintain the forests. So we’re going to need money once the $10 million is spent. We will go to ratepayers for that.

What does success look like five years from now?

In the Dry Lake Hills area we will be wrapping up that work and starting the work in Lake Mary. We’ll be continuing to build community social and political support for work through meetings, briefings, the report card, etc. We will have a decision, or be close to one, to fund long-term maintenance.

Paul Summerfelt leads the City of Flagstaff’s Wildland Fire Management Division. Past President of the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership, he currently serves as the City’s representative in the Four Forests Restoration Initiative and the State Forest Health Council, and is the Project Manager for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.  

During his career, he has served in a number of positions on both regional (Type II) and national (Type 1) Incident management Teams, including Operations Section Chief, Plans Chief, Deputy Incident Commander, and Incident Commander. He now serves on one-of-three national Area Command Teams.

Photo: Toa55 / Shutterstock.com

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