Forest Service braces for cuts

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – The White River National Forest surrounding Aspen faces some budget uncertainties that could affect such seasonal duties as maintaining trails and patrolling the wilderness, according to Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

As funding stands now, the White River will lose “somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million” in funding compared with last year, Fitzwilliams said. The funding for 19 national forests is decided by the Rocky Mountain Region headquarters in Lakewood.

Some decisions still are being made in the regional office that could affect the White River’s final budget for 2013, Fitzwilliams said. For example, some of the funds budgeted for the forests in the region weren’t spent in 2012, so there is a chance some of that will carry over to the 2013 budget. In addition, national forests across the country took funds out of programs to contribute to fire-fighting efforts last summer. Some of those funds also may be replaced.

The White River National Forest’s budget varies drastically from year to year. It had a $28.57 million total budget in 2010 with a huge caveat. About $10.6 million of that, 37 percent, was allocated specifically for projects to deal with bark-beetle destruction. Last year’s budget was about $22 million, Fitzwilliams said.

Regardless of whether the $3 million budget reduction is whittled down, it’s clear cuts will have to be made in the White River’s operations.

“We know we’re going to have a reduced seasonal staff,” Fitzwilliams said.

There will be fewer workers on trails crews, which cut down timber and maintain hiking and biking trails. There will be fewer recreation technicians who staff heavily visited areas. There will be fewer rangers patrolling wilderness to check for compliance of regulations, according to Fitzwilliams. Wilderness rangers typically check to make sure backpackers camp a certain distance from high-elevation lakes and honor fire bans in specific sensitive areas.

The sprawling forest covers 2.3 million acres from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs and from west of Rifle to Summit County. The White River receives about 9 million visitors each year. More than 7 million comes from skiers.

Fewer trail workers could mean hikers, mountain bikers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts will likely be dealing with more downed trees on trails. There are about 2,500 miles of official trails in the forest and another 1,900 miles of roads.

Fitzwilliams said the agency enlists help from volunteer groups to maintain trails. He said the agency would welcome help from people who want to clear downed trees, but the effort has to be coordinated. The Forest Service wants to make sure the work meets its specifications.

The major portion of the funds raised at the Maroon Bells will remain intact. The funds there are collected and spent under a program separate from the general operating budget.

“That’s fee money and that’s pretty sacred,” Fitzwilliams said.

Congress passed legislation that allows the Forest Service to charge a fee at areas that meet certain criteria. Those funds must be spent in the area where they are collected.

The Forest Service has collected between $100,000 and $200,000 each summer from visitors to the Maroon Bells Recreation Area since the fee was started in 2000. The agency charges $10 per vehicle and 50 cents on each bus ticket. Travel for personal vehicles is limited, so the buses take tens of thousands of visitors to the popular Maroon Lake. Fitzwilliams called the fee a “lifesaver” in a 2011 interview.

The loss of $3 million from the forest’s budget is unrelated to the sequestratian or automatic spending cuts the federal government is undertaking, Fitzwilliams said.

It’s also separate from the agency capital improvements budget. Major capital projects, such as the remodeling of the forest supervisor’s staff offices in Glenwood Springs, compete for money regionally and nationally that comes out of a specific capital improvements fund. The White River applied for capital improvement funds for the remodel about four years and just received them, Fitzwilliams said. The $1 million project will increase the building’s energy efficiency and install an adequate heating and cooling system.

The renovation is scheduled to begin in July. About 40 workers in the office will be forced to relocate to other Forest Service facilities on the forest for six to eight months during the renovation.