Federal shutdown places at least temporary hold on Forest Service review of Aspen Skiing Co. projects

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams shovels the back parking area at the WRNF Headquarters in downtown Glenwood Springs Wednesday. Almost 150 employees of the forest are on furlough during the federal government shutdown.
Natuza Olen/Post Independent

The federal government shutdown has stopped the review of numerous projects proposed on the White River National Forest, but it will only create a problem if the furlough continues for an extended time, according to White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.

White River staff and contractors were reviewing scores of projects at the time the furlough started Dec. 21. The projects include Aspen Skiing Co.’s expansions of snowmaking systems at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass. Another project in the process was the addition of a chairlift and terrain on the Pandora section of Aspen Mountain. Fitzwilliams had issued a draft decision notice approving those projects prior to the shutdown. They were subject to a 45-day objection period by eligible parties. That process will be placed on hold.

“The direction we received from the national office is to extend (the objection period) by the number of days the shutdown lasts,” Fitzwilliams said Wednesday.

Aspen Skiing Co. officials are anxiously watching the saga because they hope to undertake the snowmaking projects this year.

Skico said in a statement, “We are still in process with both the Forest Service and Pitkin County regarding the Pandora/Aspen Mountain snowmaking projects. On the federal side, we hope the governmental shutdown is resolved quickly, but obviously can’t predict an outcome. We’d still like to conclude both federal and local regulatory reviews by the end of March with the intention of constructing snowmaking improvements on Aspen Mountain this summer, but in light of the uncertainty will prepare to schedule contingency plans as we watch the federal political process play out.”

Other projects weren’t as far into the Forest Service review process.

For example, the Forest Service unveiled a proposal Nov. 29 for removal of hazard trees on Basalt Mountain. The agency hopes to remove trees this summer that were charred by the Lake Christine Fire last summer. Extensive planning, including completion of an environmental assessment, is needed before the project can advance. The public comment period ended Dec. 29 — eight days after the shutdown started.

In that type of case, the national office of the Forest Service advised extending the comment period by the eight days that had been remaining or a minimum of seven days, once the shutdown is over.

In addition, the White River office was working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to coordinate flood and debris flow mitigation projects. The work is needed in anticipation of runoff from the Lake Christine Fire burn scar. That planning will be placed on temporary hold, at least.

Fitzwilliams said it would take his staff some time to catch up on project reviews once they are back at work, but it shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, the big question is how long the impasse will continue between President Donald Trump and Congress. Thursday was day 13. Trump told reporters Wednesday the shutdown will take “as long as it takes” to secure funding for a border wall between the United States and Mexico. Democrats say they won’t fund the wall.

The furlough has affected 150 employees on the White River National Forest. That includes the forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs and district ranger offices in Aspen, Rifle, Meeker, Eagle and Dillon.

The furlough really hasn’t hit home yet because so many employees were on vacation during the holidays.

“The first week plus Monday (prior to New Year’s Day), so many people were gone anyway,” Fitzwilliams said.

The employees received their last paycheck Dec. 29. They are scheduled to receive their next one Jan. 13.

“By Friday, it will be a whole pay period that we were furloughed,” Fitzwilliams said.

Some employees could find themselves in a tough situation after that date, especially those paying rent in the tough housing market of the region. During the last lengthy furlough — 16 days in 2013 — a local bank offered federal employees no-interest loans to get through the period without pay, Fitzwilliams recalled.

The vast majority of White River workers are furloughed, but some fall into other categories. Essential workers such as the military are exempt from the shutdown. Others are “excepted,” including Fitzwilliams, the five district rangers and firefighters, who are scheduled for training vital for their duties during warm-weather months.

Fitzwilliams said he and the district rangers have monitored buildings and property to make sure they remain in good working order. They are not supposed to perform their usual functions. Fitzwilliams shoveled the sidewalk in front of the forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs on Wednesday, for example, and dug out and started office vehicles that were parked during the deep freeze Tuesday night.

A water pipe froze at the Aspen bunkhouse Wednesday, but Fitzwilliams said he had the authorization to hire a contractor to fix it to avoid greater damage.

After past shutdowns ended, Congress authorized issuing back pay for workers affected by the furlough. It will be up to Congress again this time on back pay. Losing pay would obviously lead to a huge loss in morale, according to Fitzwilliams.

He said he hasn’t had much contact yet with forest employees. He plans to check in on some employees as the furlough goes on.

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