Self-service national forest | AspenTimes.com

Self-service national forest

Smokey Bear will be difficult to find at the U.S. Forest Service office in Aspen this winter and could soon be impossible to locate at any time in Glenwood Springs.The agency is overhauling the way it interacts with the public in the Roaring Fork Valley. Rangers will spend less time as “greeters” at the Aspen office and more time initiating contact with visitors in the forest, according to Lee Ann Loupe, public affairs specialist for the White River National Forest.Starting this week, a ranger will be available to answer telephone calls and walk-in visits from the public only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through Dec. 22. The visitors’ center will close completely from Dec. 23 until May.Forest Service officials insisted Monday they could close the office and still improve customer service. Matt Sandate, who frequently staffs the visitors’ center at the Forest Service office in Aspen, said spending less time tied to a desk this fall will allow him to spend more time in the field contacting deer and elk hunters. And once ski season hits full stride around Christmas, Sandate will spend his time at high traffic areas on the slopes, like the top of the Silver Queen Gondola.During the summer, the Aspen office receives a lot of walk-in business from people trying to decide where to hike, camp or undertake some other type of activity, Sandate said. In the fall, walk-in demand plummets and the number of hunters in the forest increases. Hunters often scout where they want to go in advance so they don’t need services at a visitors’ center. The best chance to interact with them is in the field, according to Sandate.Loupe said the agency’s new strategy is to gets rangers into the places where the public is concentrated rather than wait for the public to walk into an office. A proactive approach, she claimed, could actually increase the interaction between the Forest Service and the public. Internally, the agency calls the strategy “boots on the ground” – signifying the effort to get people out of offices and into the field. “The whole region [of the Forest Service] has an emphasis to get boots on the ground,” she said.Loupe acknowledged that the agency’s funding also plays a role in the reduced hours for the visitors’ centers. Finances play a role “in everything we do,” she said.The agency has been under increasing pressure from the Bush administration to function more like a business. For example, the agency is in the process of taking an inventory of all its recreational facilities across the country – everything from obscure backcountry campgrounds to interpretative centers and bus stations like those at Maroon Lake. The inventory will be used to prioritize where the agency should channel its efforts and what facilities need to be closed.Critics contend that approach is too oriented toward the bottom line. Forest Service officials defend it as fiscal reality. The agency experimented last year with reducing the visitors center hours at the Aspen office. In a recent interview with The Aspen Times, White River National Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson deemed the experiment a success. She said the agency needs to evolve to meet changing demands from the public for information. For example, younger people want more information via the Internet so they can plan trips in advance, according to Gustafson.”We’re going to try to do more things and see what works,” she said.The most drastic change could be made in Glenwood Springs. The public can currently walk into the forest supervisor’s office for visitor information. Loupe said the demand doesn’t necessarily warrant providing that function, although no numbers were available on public service.Options include providing information at the Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce, where there is already a lot of tourist traffic, or sending people to the Forest Service office 12 miles away in Carbondale, Loupe said. No decision has been made.Gustafson said in an earlier interview that maintaining the visitors’ center function at the Glenwood Springs office “doesn’t seem to be working.” However, she said the agency would only stop providing that service when a good alternative was found.At the Aspen office, winter hours will be 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, visitor information will be limited to a self-service station at the entrance to the office. After Dec. 22, that self-service station will be the only service until May.The Carbondale office will continue to operate with full-time visitor information. That office can be reached at 963-2266. Information about the White River National Forest is also available on the web at http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/whiteriver/.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com