White River’s funding falls 3.5% | AspenTimes.com

White River’s funding falls 3.5%

When you are clipping along on your mountain bike on a favorite trail this spring and come across deadfall, don’t hold your breath waiting for a trail crew to clear it.

The U.S. Forest Service is trying to do more with less this year. Although more visitors are cycling, hiking, camping and driving in the White River National Forest, Congress has allocated fewer funds.

The budget for the entire forest fell 3.5 percent from $17.1 million in fiscal 2001 to $16.5 million this fiscal year, which started in October.

Flat and even slightly declining budget numbers are nothing new for public lands managers in the Forest Service. It’s a trend that has developed for at least the past decade.

“What’s going on in the White River is nothing unique,” said Steve Sherwood, deputy forest supervisor for the White River National Forest, which includes the Aspen Ranger District and Sopris Ranger District in Carbondale.

“I think we’ve held our own, but that’s as good as I would put it.”

One societal factor has heavily influenced the Forest Service’s budget. Any major decision such as logging or road closures is a lawsuit waiting to happen in our litigious society. Environmentalists often adopt a strategy of suing to stop an activity like logging. Off-road enthusiasts sue to keep a route open.

That requires the Forest Service to do extensive studies under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Studies require experts. Experts require pay. That pay sucks funds from other portions of the budget.

The forest’s top officials have tried to deal with the shortage of funds in different ways. Former supervisor Sonny LaSalle reduced staff in the supervisor’s office to try to get more funds to the seven ranger districts.

Even so, dollars got stretched thin in the sprawling White River National Forest. It 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.

That strategy left the ranks thin for some vital services. For example, the supervisor’s office had one staff member to oversee the concessionaires as well as the 150 outfitters and guides.

Current supervisor Martha Ketelle is trying to fill some staff positions regarded as vital without pulling too much funding from the field.

Still, Sherwood doesn’t believe funding will allow the districts to do as good of a job as the Forest Service would like in providing high-quality information and assistance to visitors.

“This forest has the potential to be the national showcase,” Sherwood said.

Instead, he assessed the funding and staffing issue by concluding, “For the most part, we have enough to just keep running. Because of where we are, we can provide world-class recreation opportunities to people, but we could do so much more than what we’re doing.”

Aspen is a good case study on the effects of Forest Service funding. Aspen District Ranger Jim Upchurch stressed that he will make do with the funds available and that he isn’t complaining. However, his district has difficulty filling positions because the pay scale doesn’t allow for Aspen’s high cost of living.

Three permanent staffers were lost last year, and another is retiring in June. The district is operating without a snow ranger, who monitors ski area and backcountry activities; a resource specialist, who plays a vital role in review of applications; and a front office worker, the front line of public contact. Assistant district ranger Jim Stark “is doing about four jobs” to make up for the shortfall, according to Upchurch.

“The challenge is once those people leave to have enough [funding] to replace them,” he said. “The pay scale is the same if you live here or in Idaho, where it costs $60,000 to buy a house.”

There isn’t enough funding, so Upchurch and Sopris District Ranger Bill Westbrook have compensated by sharing employees. Some watchdogs would say that’s just good government in action because it promotes savings. But a case can also be made that splitting time of vital employees, such as a wildlife biologist, diminishes the level of service.

The Aspen ranger district makes due in other ways. Congress has approved demonstration projects that allow the agency to charge a fee to visit the most spectacular areas of national forests, such as Maroon Lake.

The Aspen Ranger District raised about $126,000 through fees there last year. The funds must be used for projects in that vicinity. They aren’t turned back over to the federal treasury.

The fee demonstration project will allow the Aspen district to hire six workers for the Maroon Lake area this summer.

Trail work is also dependent on outside help. The nonprofit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is soliciting volunteers for a rehabilitation project on the approach to Capitol Peak this summer. The trail work is in conjunction with the Forest Service.

A local group called the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers harnesses volunteer labor annually to help with high-priority trail work in national forests and other lands.

Upchurch, Westbrook and Sherwood all acknowledged that the Forest Service’s own trail work will be limited due to funding. For the entire White River National Forest, $542,000 is allocated to trails, down 12 percent from $616,000 last year.

The Aspen and Sopris district alone have 500 miles of trails. There are a lot of trees along those trails and, inevitably, a lot of blown down trees. So if you’re out on the trails a lot, it might be best to take a saw. It will be awhile before a trail crew covers all those miles.

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