You can keep your camping plans for now
January 11, 2007
Aspenites received some good news recently from a local official with the U.S. Forest Service, who told The Aspen Times that our area should escape campground closures and other cutbacks resulting from an ongoing agency cost-cutting effort.The White River National Forest, and the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District in particular, is one of the busiest national forests in the country, so it’s not the place for the Forest Service to cut fat from its recreational budget.This, we suppose, is one of the upsides of the crowding and human impact that many Aspenites lament. We should still have access to bathrooms, campgrounds, picnic areas and other national forest amenities. Other Colorado forests were not so lucky; the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre National Forest may close as many as 40 or 50 facilities as a result of the Recreational Facilities Master Plan process.District Ranger Bill Westbrook also told the Times that Portal Campground, near Grizzly Lake, will remain open. Westbrook said the public outcry was too loud, and that he’d keep the campground open despite low visitation. We thank him for listening.However, these positive signs should not blind us to the overall trend affecting this valuable federal agency. The U.S. Forest Service has come under budgetary attack in recent years, and those of us who use public lands regularly have noticed as staffing has been cut and services – at least in the recreation category – have dropped off. Campground management has been handed to concessionaires, trail maintenance to volunteers, and it’s rare that one ever runs into an actual Forest Service ranger anymore, except behind the desk at a district office or the visitor center at Maroon Lake.As the Aspen Times Weekly reported recently, the White River National Forest takes in nearly $9.5 million in ski area fees each year, but White River officials only keep some $330,000 of that total to spend locally. If Congress is asking national forests to behave more like businesses, the least it can do is allow forests to keep the bulk of their locally generated revenue.This is analogous to death by a thousand cuts. With each little cutback, each additional move toward privatization, our national forests become a little less ours. And a once-proud federal agency with its unique multiple-use mission is further diminished.We are happy that the White River National Forest won’t feel the brunt of the cutbacks associated with the Recreational Facilities Master Plan process. But we should not lose sight of what’s happening to the U.S. Forest Service in a broader sense.