Firefighting puts Aspen-area forest management in a pinch
The budget to manage the national forest surrounding Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Vail has been gutted by national firefighting efforts and will likely continue forcing the U.S. Forest Service to tighten its belt for the foreseeable future, according to White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The federal agency is spending 57 percent of its overall budget on firefighting, up from 14 percent 20 years ago.
“The pot — $5 billion, give or take — hasn’t changed,” Fitzwilliams said Wednesday night while addressing an audience of about 45 people in Aspen. Fitzwilliams spoke at the Limelight Hotel as part of Aspen Skiing Co.’s Aspen U speaker series.
The agency anticipates spending 67 percent of its budget on firefighting by 2025.
“That’s shocking folks,” he said.
The top official in the 2.3- million-acre White River National Forest said the budget trend is “unsustainable” and makes it impossible for the agency to manage the national resources in as comprehensive of a way as it has in the past.
Forest fires are the only natural disasters that don’t have a special fund for mitigation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gets funding to deal with hurricanes, for example. There was a push in Congress to dedicate separate funding for forest fire-fighting, but that failed.
Fitzwilliams has been at his post for six years and watched the White River National Forest’s budget go up in flames, so to speak. The forest had a $31 million budget when he first arrived in 2010. It’s $18 million for the next fiscal year. He said he is proud of his staff for accomplishing as much as it does with shrinking revenue.
“We’re doing this on almost half the budget,” he said.
And the staff is doing it in one of the most heavily visited forests in the country. The White River hosts an estimated 13 million annual visitors for recreation, from skiers to snowmobilers and hikers to dirt bikers. Fitzwilliams noted that is about the same number of visitors Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks see combined, though they are better funded.
Fitzwilliams said the budget crunch is having a tangible effect on forest management in the Aspen area. He said he doesn’t like to be “the supervisor of ‘no,’” but he must constantly tell Skico and other resort operators that review of projects will take longer simply because of staff shortages, and he must tell the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association that the forest can’t move as quickly as the association wants on creating new trails, if it can act at all.
“We’re becoming the agency of ‘no’ because we have an obligation to manage responsibly what we already have,” he said.
Fitzwilliams doesn’t believe the Forest Service will be pressured into selling valuable assets to private interests. There’s been an effort in some Western state legislatures, including Colorado’s, to study acquiring federal lands. Most efforts haven’t gone anywhere.
Some conservationists also fear the most fiscally conservative factions in Congress will promote selling off assets such as public lands. Fitzwilliams said he doesn’t believe the American public would allow that to happen.
The magnificent Maroon Bells and even much less stunning forestlands won’t be sold to the highest bidder, he said. However, the White River National Forest will be “proactive” in selling unused or underused administrative sites to county and municipal governments for public benefit, like helping solve affordable-housing shortages, according to Fitzwilliams.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District is studying a plan to sell 20 acres of land with four houses to Eagle County. The property is adjacent to Crown Mountain Park in the El Jebel area. The houses and land were part of the former Mount Sopris Tree Farm, a nursery that was shut down decades ago. The Forest Service traded about 180 acres at the former nursery to Pitkin and Eagle counties in the 1990s. That land became Crown Mountain Park and the site of the Eagle County office building.
Fitzwilliams didn’t put a timeline on the sale of the remaining 20 acres at the site.
“Our plan is to sell that to Eagle County Housing Authority and sell it for 200 housing units,” he said.
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry confirmed that the county is exploring the purchase. It would require funding partners because the county doesn’t have a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing, she said.
A portion of the 20 acres the Forest Service wants to sell in El Jebel is riparian area along the Roaring Fork River that is inappropriate for development. The open space programs in Eagle and Pitkin counties have been contacted about chipping in to acquire that part of the property, she said.
A concept paper for the property prepared by Eagle County in 2014 says density at the Tree Farm site could range from three to 10 units per acre. The highest density would be along Valley Road, adjacent to existing higher density development.
“While the property has not been fully planned, the expected population would be between 400 to 600 people being housed in 175 to 225 units,” the concept paper said.
Chandler-Henry stressed that no decisions have been made about density or even acquisition of the property. The midvalley community must be involved in planning “early on” to determine if some number of units is acceptable, she said. The community probably should be engaged before a decision is made on the purchase, she said.
“I think it would be wise. The earlier the better,” she said.
Any discussions about development in the midvalley these days generally pit established residents who don’t want higher density and traffic against those struggling to get a toehold because of the high cost of free-market housing.
“There’s some real competing interests,” Chandler-Henry said. She noted that quality of life comes up as important on any survey involving Eagle County residents.
If a project is pursued, Eagle County will partner with a private developer to provide the affordable housing, Chandler-Henry said. The county’s contribution would be the land. The project would be entirely deed-restricted housing.
No county meetings are currently scheduled to discuss the possible purchase because the Forest Service is still going through its internal process necessary to sell the property.
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The property tax overcharge refunds are in the hands of Basalt residents. A new civic organization is cranking up its campaign to have recipients contribute some or all of their refunds to the Basalt Gives effort to benefit midvalley-serving nonprofits.