Firefighting chews up funds from Aspen-area forest
The White River National Forest must cut between $200,000 and $300,000 from its remaining budget this year to help with the agency’s desperate transfer of funds to firefighting efforts around the western U.S.
But it’s the longer-term budget implications that concern White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The trend of devoting more funds to firefighting is going to force the Forest Service to trim money from construction and maintenance of facilities, road maintenance, reforestation after timber sales and reduce seasonal crews for such duties as trail maintenance and wilderness patrols.
“When this happens, ‘disruptive’ is maybe a word that’s an extreme understatement,” Fitzwilliams said.
He understands the need to transfer funds for firefighting. He just wants to make sure the public understands the ramifications.
Wildfires are devastating national forests in California, Oregon, Washington and Montana. The agency budgeted $1.01 billion for fire suppression in fiscal year 2015, which ends in October. There was only $145 million left in the fund with several fires still burning as of Aug. 26, according to the Forest Service’s headquarters. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell ordered the agency this week to use its transfer authority to shuffle as much as $450 million from other programs into firefighting.
Fitzwilliams said his staff is scouring its books to find unused funds and any contracts that can be canceled. His staff’s estimates, based on preliminary looks, is that as much as $300,000 can be transferred.
On a national level, firefighting is sucking funds out of the Forest Service budget. The agency has transferred funds out of other programs for firefighting seven of the past 10 years. Fire funding went from 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995 to 52 percent in fiscal year 2015, according to statistics from the national headquarters.
The fire budget goes beyond suppression. It includes preparedness and reduction of hazardous fuels.
The agency now has more workers in fire staffing — more than 12,000 — than it does in public-land management, with fewer than 11,000.
Fitzwilliams said the White River National Forest’s budget has been reduced in recent years by the shift. The budget was more than $30 million when he took the post six years ago, swollen somewhat by hazardous-fuels mitigation dollars. This year, the budget is $18.2 million.
The White River staff isn’t dominated by firefighters, but the non-firefighting staff is shrinking. It went from 178 permanent staff in 2003 to 135 currently, with several vacant positions. It used to hire 200 seasonal workers per summer. This year, that number was at 50 and will be reduced further.
Volunteers from organizations ranging from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies to Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and the Forest Conservancy have aided the agency immensely, Fitzwilliams said. But his staff works with all the volunteers it can effectively manage.
Despite the shrinking budget, the demands for service are growing. White River records the highest recreational visits in the country at more than 13 million annually. Facilities, such as some campgrounds, are in sub-standard condition.
“Through bailing wire and duct tape we’ve maintained,” Fitzwilliams said.
The White River staff is performing a recreation-site analysis to determine what facilities it can afford to take care of in its inventory. Some sites “will take a hit,” he said.
Fitzwilliams said he always welcomes ideas on efficiency, but he feels his staff is about as efficient as it can get. Services are going to suffer under the budget trends.
“We’re going to do less, there’s no question about it,” he said.
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Mario Ruiz came to Aspen Highlands from Bariloche through the ski patrol exchange as part of the Sister Cities program last winter. He quickly ingrained himself with the Highlands patrol. Ruiz was killed July 27 in an avalanche while working at his home ski area. The Highlands patrol is raising funds for his family.