The budget for the vast national forest surrounding Aspen is down $4.24 million, or 18 percent, in 2014 from the prior year, according to data acquired Thursday from the U.S. Forest Service.
The White River National Forest, which hosts the most recreation visits of any forest in the nation, has a budget of $18.37 million in 2014 compared to $22.61 million last year.
In addition, the budget tumbled almost 40 percent from the money allocated in both 2009 and 2010. Those budgets were swollen with special funding for “fuels reduction” projects to battle the bark beetle epidemic in Summit County.
Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the Forest Service “has an obligation” to tighten its belt to help deal with the ongoing budget crisis facing the federal government. “We’re pinching pennies left and right,” he said.
Fitzwilliams outlined numerous implications of the slashed budget. Most of the 22 to 25 vacancies on the White River staff will go unfilled longer than anticipated. Training and travel have been all but eliminated. Projects that are typically funded through unallocated funds will be postponed or eliminated, such as trail alignments. Fewer seasonal workers will be hired for tasks such as trail clearing, weed management and wilderness patrol.
The budget was established last week. Fitzwilliams and his staff are adjusting work plans accordingly. He said the staff must consider if some facilities should be closed. In addition, the Forest Service will consider if existing fees to visit Maroons Bells should be boosted and if a fee to Hanging Lake should be instituted. Any decision involving fees would require years to determine.
One of the hardest hit areas in the budget was recreation facilities maintenance. The forest was allocated $221,000, the smallest amount over the past six years. That line item has ranged from $925,980 in 2009 to $242,200 in 2012.
Fewer dollars for maintenance means projects like painting picnic tables at campgrounds and day-use areas may have to be deferred, Fitzwilliams said.
Funds for road maintenance are down 12.5 percent from last year and down about 50 percent from 2009. There is $1.24 million allocated for roads maintenance this year.
Funding for salaries and administration fell from $2.75 million to $2.68 million. Federal employees received a 1 percent raise, the first in five years, according to Fitzwilliams. The lower budget for salaries reflects the increased number of vacancies that haven’t been filled.
Funds allocated for oil and gas issues as well as minerals and geology were off sharply. Funds for timber-related projects climbed from $1.44 million in 2013 to $2.22 million this year.
The largest drop in a single line item came in fuels reduction. It fell from $3.09 million last year to $1.52 million this year. As much as $3.66 million was allocated in a single year for fuels reduction during the past six years.
Funding for fire prevention has been steadier, coming in at $1.37 million this year.
Forest breaks even
While the federal government in general is criticized for not running efficiently, Fitzwilliams said he is proud of the fact that the Forest Service manages the 2.3-million acre White River National Forest at a low net cost to taxpayers.
“That’s impressive in my mind,” he said.
Here’s how Fitzwilliams arrived at that conclusion. Within the $18.37 million budget for the forest, $1.78 million was through channels unrelated to taxpayers. That’s revenue from everything from maps sales to outfitter guide fees.
That means about $16.59 million is funded through the federal treasury. However, the White River National Forest raises about $15.5 million annually for the federal treasury. The bulk of that — $14.4 million in 2013 — comes from fees paid by ski areas for use of public lands, according to a report by the forest supervisor’s office.
That means the White River National Forest requires about $1 million in taxpayer funding.
Health of the forest
The number of visitors to the forest keeps growing at a time when the budget is shrinking. In 2012, the White River had an estimated 12.3 million visitors, according to Fitzpatrick. That includes more than 7 million customers at ski areas who use the national forest.
The White River receives more visits than any other forest or national park, according to Fitzwilliams.
Given the increasing demand, the budget cuts cannot continue forever, he said.
The big question facing the Roaring Fork Valley is whether the Forest Service can maintain a healthy forest while operating with a drastically slashed budget.
“When you look at these numbers, it’s easy to be pessimistic,” Fitzwilliams acknowledged. He went on to say he remains optimistic that alternative funding sources will be found to help keep the forest healthy.
“I believe everything is cyclical. This is a tough cycle,” he said. “This, too, will pass.”
The White River receives millions in dollars of aid, mostly via in-kind labor, from a variety of volunteer organizations. The Forest Conservancy, for example, provides volunteer rangers to patrol the backcountry and aid visitors. Aspen Center for Environmental Studies is leading a team that put together a forest-health project in the Hunter Creek Valley-Smuggler Mountain area. Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers coordinates trail maintenance projects throughout the backcountry.
The health of the forest is too vital for the communities it surrounds to ignore. “It is the lifeblood of these international cities of Aspen and Vail,” Fitzwilliams said.
“I believe everything is cyclical. This is a tough cycle.”
Supervisor, White River National Forest