Forest Service budget has some bugs to work out |

Forest Service budget has some bugs to work out

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS”The budget for the White River National Forest is up 6 percent this fiscal year, but most of that increase was allocated to deal with an invasion of beetles rather than the usual hordes of tourists.

The 2.3 million acre White River National Forest, which includes the sprawling Aspen-Sopris District, has a budget of $21.21 million for fiscal year 2008, which started last October. That’s up from $19.93 million in the last fiscal year.

Nearly all of the increase will go to reducing hazardous fuels and methods of battling the bark beetles that have ravaged parts of the national forest, particularly around Vail and Summit County.

That means public land managers have about the same amount of funds as last year to maintain and operate trails and facilities in one of the most heavily-used forests in the country.

“We were pretty flat,” said Rich Doak, recreation manager at the forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs. “Realistically, you’re going to lose to inflation.”

The White River National Forest budget reflects the changing priorities of the agency. The Forest Service’s national budget this fiscal year is $4.13 billion ” a decrease of $64.5 million.

“The Fiscal Year 2008 budget responds to our Nation’s priorities of fighting the War on Terror and reducing the Federal deficit while it maintains funding levels for priority agency programs,” said an overview to the national budget.

Fighting fires and trying to prevent them evolved as the biggest priority after numerous wild fires swept through several western states this decade. About 21 percent of the agency’s budget went toward wildland fire management in 2000. This year, the fire-related expenses have ballooned to 45 percent of the budget.

More than $6 million of the White River National Forest’s budget is related to wildland fire management, according to figures from the supervisor’s office. That portion of the budget increased by about $928,000 this year.

“A larger percentage of the pie has shifted into fire management,” Doak said.

The five district ranger offices in the White River National Forest, which stretches from Rifle to Summit County and from south of Aspen to the Flat Tops, will have $622,800 to devote to maintaining the hundreds of miles of trails this summer. That figure, which includes the salaries of trail crews, is up from $592,600 last year, Doak said.

In addition, the main fund for the recreation staff and activities increased to $2.69 million from $1.94 million, according to Doak.

Most national forests also received a temporary infusion of special funds to improve facilities at developed recreation sites like campgrounds, picnic sites and day-use areas. The White River received $484,000 in those special funds this year and will get another $500,000 next year, Doak said.

Those funds are being used for projects like replacing toilets at Chapman Campground in the upper Fryingpan Valley; installing a new toilet at the Grottos; and removing facilities from the toilet-heavy Maroon Lake area.

A key part of the Aspen-Sopris District’s finances aren’t reflected in the dollars doled out by Congress. The Recreation Enhancement Act approved by Congress allows the Forest Service to keep the vast majority of fees collected at special sites like the Maroon Bells and from outfitters and guides.

The recreation fees, like at the Bells, are controversial. Critics, such as the Western Slope No Fee Coalition, object to the public getting charged to use public lands. They say that taxpayers funds already support those facilities.

But Doak said the ability to charge fees at certain attractions is a lifesaver. The White River National Forest collected nearly $1 million in fees from places such as the Maroon Bells and from outfitters and guides in 2006, the latest figures available. The forest keeps 95 percent of those funds. Dollars collected at the Maroon Bells get plowed back into maintenance and operations at that site, Doak said.

“If the Recreation Enhancement Act ever went away we’d be in a world of trouble,” Doak said.

Some observers believe the agency is in a world of trouble anyway, with the federal deficit growing and the war dragging on. In the White River National Forest, the beetle epidemic affected 500,000 additional acres in Colorado in 2007, the Forest Service estimates. It has wiped out mature lodgepole pine forests on 1.5 million acres in the state since 1996. A spruce beetle epidemic also looms, Forest Service experts said, and that could have a greater impact on the Aspen area.