Supervisor: Budget crunch will close some recreation sites in forest around Aspen
Residents from Aspen to Meeker and Rifle to Breckenridge will learn in dramatic fashion this summer how shrinking budgets in the White River National Forest will affect them.
The forest, like others in Colorado, is performing a study called a recreation site analysis. It will determine what sites the agency can afford to keep operating and what it must shut down. For some people, the brutal reality is that a favorite, isolated campground will eventually be shut down, said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
A draft of the study will be released in early summer, according to the Forest Service. The public will be asked to comment. Any significant alterations of sites, such as closures of campgrounds, must go through environmental analysis. Sites could be affected beginning in 2017.
The San Juan National Forest released its draft this winter and is engaging residents on the implications.
Fitzwilliams has been blunt in recent years about how the Forest Service’s requirement to fight fires throughout the West has sapped money out of the agency’s budget. While the White River forest itself hasn’t faced fires, its budget has been reduced to chip in with efforts elsewhere.
Fitzwilliams explained the situation in detail last month in a presentation that was part of Aspen Skiing Co.’s Aspen U speaker series. His office released video and print versions of its annual report this week to amplify the challenges the forest administration is facing. A summary of the 2015 impact report and slide presentation is available on the forest’s website at http://www.fs.usda.gov/whiteriver.
The report shows the White River forest’s budget has shrunk from $30.39 million in 2009 to $21.28 million in 2012 and $18.40 million last year. The budget for fiscal 2016 hasn’t been released yet.
The agency depends on allocations from Congress. Even though the White River collected $22 million in fees from 11 alpine and three cross-country ski areas that use public lands last year, most of those fees go back to the U.S. Treasury.
Symbols of the Old West haven’t completely disappeared from the forest. It reported that it managed 86 grazing allotments with more than 41,000 sheep and 20,000 cattle on public lands last year.
While funding is shrinking, use is soaring. The forest attracted an estimated 9 million visitors in 2003, including customers at ski areas. The number of visitors climbed to 13 million last year.
Fitzwilliams said his staff is forced to do more with less. The number of full-time, year-round staffers fell from 178 to 116 between 2003 and last year. The number of seasonal workers plummeted from 210 to 113, according to the report.
Fitzwilliams said he anticipates further belt-tightening this year, forcing the agency to depend more on partners that supply volunteers and funds. Donations and in-kind services totaled $1.1 million in 2003. They increased to $3.2 million last year.
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