Visits up, spending down in national forest around Aspen

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
A trail in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness climbs West Maroon Pass. The view is looking down West Maroon Valley. Despite increasing visits, the budget for the White River National Forest is shrinking.
Dana Laughren/courtesy photo |


By the numbers

Size: 2,275,956 acres

Wilderness: 751,900 acres

Visitors: 3 million

2014 budget: $20.51 million

Staff: 128

Seasonals: 117

14ers: 10

Campgrounds: 66

Ski areas: 12

Wilderness areas: 8

The White River National Forest has cut spending and tightened its belt to the point that it’s almost a moneymaker for the Department of the Treasury.

The forest, which includes the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, had a budget of $20.51 million for fiscal year 2014, according to a 2014 annual report released this month. That was down nearly $2.5 million, or 11 percent, from the $23 million budget in 2013.

Since 2010, the forest’s budget is down nearly 22 percent, or $5.5 million, the latest annual report said.

Meanwhile, the forest raised $20.1 million from all types of fees and permits. That meant revenue fell only about $400,000 short of expenditures in 2014.

That’s “very unusual” in this era, said Heather Provencio, deputy supervisor for the forest. In the old days, timber sales produced big revenue for the Forest Service and made it one of the few federal agencies that raised more funds than it spent, she said.

Many uses, one money source

Although the White River National Forest is the land of many uses, as the Forest Service’s motto says, recreation is the prime revenue source.

Recreation fees — ranging from ski-area permits to fees paid by special events — raised $18.56 million last year.

In contrast, timber sales contributed $111,713 to the coffers, grazing permits generated $107,522 and oil-and-gas revenue was $38,409.

The 2.3 million-acre forest stretches from south of Aspen to north of Glenwood Springs and from Rifle on the west to Summit County on the east. Tourists flock to internationally famous sites such as the Maroon Bells, and backpackers have made the Four Pass Loop a top favorite on their bucket lists. Vail Pass is a mecca for winter recreation. Tens of thousands of hikers climb the 10 peaks in the forest higher than 14,000 feet in elevation.

The White River supervisor’s office has said for years that about 12 million people visit the forest annually, making it the busiest national forest in the country. That estimate was based on a survey now several years old. It includes roughly 7 million skiers and snowboarders who visit the forest’s 12 ski areas.

Provencio said the visitation is going up.

“It’s closer to 13 million annually now,” she said.

Visits are up in summer as well as winter, she said. Recent surveys show visitors have almost doubled this summer at Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon. That is hard to imagine, Provencio said, because last summer was busy. More people are visiting on weekdays and earlier every day, she said.

Numbers aren’t available for the Maroon Bells, but anecdotally, it appears visits are up this summer, according to Provencio.

The forest is raising more from recreation than it is spending on management of recreation amenities. The annual report shows that the forest collected $18.56 million in recreation special-use permits.

Meanwhile, it spent just $3.46 million on recreation management. Another $1.41 million was spent on road and trail maintenance, though not necessarily on recreation.

The funds collected from ski areas go back to the U.S. Treasury. Other funds collected for recreation permits stay in the forest.

Doing more with less

While the White River National Forest’s visits are growing, its full-time staff is shrinking. The agency is depending more than ever on seasonal workers and volunteers. The permanent staff fell to 128 from 146 the prior year, while the seasonal staff increased to 117 from 94.

The forest has depended with increasing urgency in recent years on the nonprofit Forest Conservancy to provide volunteers to staff facilities at Maroon Lake and encounter visitors while hiking trails. It also depends on naturalists from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for interpretative presentations.

Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, among others, are critical for work on trails in the forest.

Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams was on vacation Monday and unavailable for comment, but he noted the fiscal challenges in an introduction to the annual report. Volunteers provided $3.2 million in cash and in-kind contributions, he wrote.

“The significant challenges we faced in 2013 are still with us, including declining budget and more demands than ever on our staff and the land we manage,” Fitzwilliams wrote. “2015 will continue to present even more challenges.”

Provencio said the staff achieved some major projects on the ground despite the budget crunch. She pointed to restoration projects of rivers and streams as a shining example of how the forest is focusing on taking care of the land.

“We just have some wonderfully dedicated employees,” Provencio said.