Forest Service taking on its budget woes |

Forest Service taking on its budget woes

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
The Forest Service will review SG Interests' application to drill on six parcels of public land it leases in Thompson Divide. The company's application to the state of Colorado includes a photo that shows the terrain where one of the wells is proposed.

The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District has tapped grants and enlisted volunteers and interns to help offset a loss of federal funding.

David Francomb, acting Aspen-Sopris District ranger, told the Pitkin County Commissioners on Tuesday that the office will employ three full-time volunteers and 23 seasonal workers this summer, down just one from last year.

The White River National Forest as a whole received about $3 million less this year than for fiscal 2012, according to the Forest Service. There are five ranger districts in the sprawling, 2.23 million-acre national forest. No figure was available for the reduction in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District’s budget

The reduced budget will have little or no effect on the three areas of the Forest Service most visible to the public, according to Francomb. Those are camping, trail maintenance and ranger patrols.

There are no plans to close or scale back campgrounds in the Aspen area. “We don’t have any plans to do anything different than we’ve done the past two or three years,” Francomb said.

An exception will be trail maintenance. Hikers and bikers might notice it takes the agency longer to clear deadfall trees off the trails.

“I won’t have as robust of a trail crew,” Francomb acknowledged.

The district will have a three-person trail crew, down one from last year. One of the positions was funded by a grant from the Colorado Off-Highway Vehicle program. Funds from that grant must be used for maintenance of routes used by motorized vehicles, Francomb said.

One seasonal worker and four interns will undertake patrols in the backcountry. The interns were hired through a grant supplied by Aspen Skiing Co. The wilderness crew patrols the heavily traveled portions of hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness in the district.

In a separate personnel matter, the district will have a law enforcement officer for the first time in a year, starting in June. That officer will undertake investigations and write tickets for violations. While Francomb was pleased that the district can fill the position, it’s still stretched thin with just one officer to cover 600,000 acres.

“That’s a lot of ground for one individual to cover,” Francomb said.

The county commissioners meet with Forest Service officials four times a year to discuss issues of mutual interest. Other topics discussed Tuesday included:

• The fate of the Balcony Trail, illegally built on the south side of Smuggler Mountain, will be determined by a planning document called the Hunter Creek-Smuggler Mountain Environmental Assessment. The Forest Service is performing an environmental review on a proposed cooperative management plan being undertaken with Pitkin County and the city of Aspen. The Forest Service has received “several” letters from the public in support of turning that route into an official part of the trail network.

County Commissioner George Newman asked Francomb how the agency intends to prevent creation of additional “bandit” trails if the Balcony Trail is legalized. Francomb said it would require help from the city and county in areas of shared management such as Hunter Creek and Smuggler Mountain. The agency will depend on people in other parts of the woods to alert it to illegal trail building.

County Commissioner Michael Owsley said the Forest Service should impose stiff fines against people who build illegal trails.

“If it’s a slap on the wrist, we’ll still get bandit trails,” he said.

Commissioner Steve Child offered a different perspective. He said if mountain bikers are building illegal trails such as Balcony and others in the Hay Park area, that shows a demand for more singletrack trail than currently available.

“That should be taken into consideration here,” Child said.

The Forest Service doesn’t necessarily agree.

“We feel we have enough to offer at this point at time,” Francomb said.

• The Forest Service is gearing up to perform fieldwork this summer on SG Interests’ application to drill six gas wells in the Thompson Divide area. The wells are proposed on public land leased by the oil and gas company. The leases were scheduled to expire this month, but the Bureau of Land Management suspended the leases — extending their life for at least another year and possibly opening the door for development.

Pitkin County teamed with the city of Glenwood Springs and the town of Carbondale to appeal the BLM decision. They want the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale protected from development.

Francomb said the Forest Service couldn’t delay its review while waiting the outcome of that dispute.

“We have a job to do. It’s to look at those applications,” he said.

Newman asked whether the agency could determine that it isn’t appropriate for the leases to be developed. That’s not possible, Francomb said, because that part of the national forest already was deemed appropriate for gas development. The Forest Service review will determine how to minimize surface disturbance.

A 1993 Oil and Gas Leasing Plan determined what parts of the White River National Forest are eligible for gas leases. The Forest Service is working on an update of that plan.