Tight budget hinders the Forest Service | AspenTimes.com

Tight budget hinders the Forest Service

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Tread particularly lightly on the trails of the White River National Forest this summer. It might be a while before they get any tender loving care.

The Aspen area will have one full-time and maybe a part-time worker available for maintenance on 189 miles of trails this summer, according to District Ranger Jim Upchurch. That’s a drastic change from the first summer he was on the job in Aspen when a seasonal trail crew of 20 workers was hired in 2000.

U.S. Forest Service officials said they didn’t have any choice but to shift funds out of trail maintenance to try to cover expenses in other areas this year. Some maintenance funds were diverted to work on a travel management plan, an intensive study that will determine what roads and trails remain open, and to what types of users.

“A lot of the trail dollars that we would have on the ground, we used for the travel management plan,” said assistant Forest Supervisor Steve Sherwood. The study will also need to be funded next year.

But the planning effort doesn’t deserve all the blame for lack of trail maintenance funding. Congress is responsible as well.

The Forest Service has a complicated budget process that makes annual comparisons nearly worthless. At least three pots are used to filter money into trails.

One of the most important pots supplied by Congress is known as CMTL funding, which stands for construction and maintenance of trails.

“Congress is not putting as much money in there,” said Rich Doak, recreational planner for the White River National Forest. “We’re taking a big hit in that one.”

The Aspen district received $24,500 from that pot last year. This year it will get nothing.

However, the Forest Service has another pot known as TRTR, which is created from the fees paid to the Forest Service, such as the fees that ski areas pay to use national forest lands for their operations. The Forest Service gets to keep 10 percent of those fees in the region for construction and maintenance of roads and trails rather than return all to the U.S. Treasury.

The Aspen district will get nearly $39,000 out of that pot this year so it appears that the district has more money for trail maintenance rather than less. But looks are deceiving, according to Upchurch and assistant Aspen District Ranger Jim Stark.

With the budget getting trimmed in other areas, the TRTR funds are used to cobble together salaries for rangers who perform a variety of duties, including trail patrolling and maintenance.

The $39,000 will pay the salary and associated expenses of the one seasonal worker dedicated to trails plus pay partial salaries of other rangers who chip in.

“The only way we survive is to take little bits and make one big puzzle out of it,” said Stark.

Upchurch said his greatest desire in the budgeting process would be to have all the funds necessary to maintain a world-class trail network. With shrinking or flat budgets for the Forest Service, that isn’t happening.

The total budget for the White River National Forest for this fiscal year is $16.69 million. At first glance, that’s a 14 percent increase from fiscal year 2002. But Sherwood said last year’s budget was an anomaly. “It went up and down and up and down,” he said.

About $16.5 million was originally budgeted for the White River last year. However, the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., asked all its districts across the country to return all nonessential funds to help fight wildfires. The drought-ravaged summer of 2002 was particularly costly because of the number of fires.

Once the White River’s budget was adjusted last year, spending was at $14.64 million, or about $2 million less than budgeted. Therefore, this year’s budget is flat compared to the budgeted amount for last year.

The amount allocated for trails and roads has dipped from $616,000 in fiscal 2001 to $542,000 last year to about $498,000 this year.

Even though funding is tight, the Aspen district is still receiving funds for capital improvement projects. The Forest Service shifts funds around among its seven districts in the sprawling White River National Forest in an effort to meet its greatest needs.

A district might receive funding for three or four straight seasons for use on capital improvements, then have to sacrifice and go without for a year or two, Doak explained.

The forest covers 2.3 million acres from Summit County to the hills above Parachute; from Pearl Pass down south to northeast of Meeker. In Pitkin County alone, the forest covers nearly 491,000 acres.

In the Aspen district, about $82,000 from the capital improvement budget has been set aside to replace a rickety bridge on the East Maroon Trail. That work will be put out to bid this summer and the work may be completed this year or next, according to Doak.

The Aspen District will also receive $60,000 this year for the design work on a new bridge at the Grottos.

Upchurch said contributions from groups like the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers are vital to keep forest trails in decent shape in a time of shrinking budgets. That organization enlists volunteer help for a half dozen or so major projects in the Roaring Fork Valley each year.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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