White River National Forest budget improves slightly
An infusion of funds to help reduce fuels and treat vegetation to prevent wildfires brightened the budget outlook for the White River National Forest for 2013, according to U.S. Forest Service Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The 2.3 million-acre forest received slightly more than $1 million for fuels reduction and vegetation treatment, he said. The White River National Forest has a 10-year stewardship plan to treat the landscape on a large scale, but annual funding isn’t guaranteed. The funds for this year were awarded in early June. Since then, Fitzwilliams and his staff have tweaked other parts of the White River budget.
“Things got a little better,” Fitzwilliams said. “Short term, we’re pretty good.”
The White River National Forest surrounds Aspen and is an economic driver for the Roaring Fork Valley. It is among the national forests with the highest number of visits for recreation.
The awarding of the funds “freed up some other money” for projects and programs that were in limbo, Fitzwilliams said. The money will be used to fund partnerships with three nonprofit organizations: the Independence Pass Foundation, the Forest Conservancy and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers.
The Forest Service also will use the extra funds internally to repair bridges on hiking trails, maintain structures at the Ashcroft ghost town and decommission roads.
Even with the extra funds, the White River’s general budget is down about 8 percent from last year, Fitzwilliams said. The budget was $22.2 million this year compared with $24.5 million last year. That doesn’t include one-time capital improvement funds that can skew a comparison.
Fitzwilliams has greater concerns about funding in the long term. There are 20-some positions on the White River staff that haven’t been filled, he said. About one-third of the usual number of seasonal workers weren’t hired this summer. Meanwhile, the workload remains the same, he noted.
The Forest Service has deferred maintenance for too long on many facilities, and just as deferral can haunt a homeowner, it can get the agency in trouble, he said.
Long-term maintenance of roads critical to access of public lands is also a concern.
“That is a problem the public will continue to see and feel,” Fitzwilliams said.
He believes federal taxpayers are getting a good deal from what he labeled efficient management of the sprawling forest.
“We manage this forest for about $2 per acre,” he said.
There’s no higher priority right now than reducing the risk of wildfires. Colorado and much of the West have been ravaged by blazes the past two summers. Fitzwilliams said projects are planned for the next three years to remove downed trees. As the work moves from the east side of the forest to the west, the emphasis will switch from fuel reduction to preventive treatment, he said. The pine-beetle outbreak clobbered the east side of the forest in Summit and Eagle counties. Areas to the west such as the Roaring Fork Valley weren’t hit as hard, but an overgrown forest with lack of age diversity needs treatment, officials have said.
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