Mix of reduced budgets and swelling demands hurt forest service’s capabilities
The White River National Forest is the busiest forest in the country, seeing record numbers of visitors each year. And yet, like the rest of the U.S. Forest Service System, funding continues to decrease or be re-allocated annually.
The combination of expanding requests from its 12 million-plus annual guests, and yet additional cutbacks, has put the multiple-use agency charged with taking care of public forest land in a bind. The duties range from presiding over varied territory, providing an assortment of individual permits and overseeing 11 ski resorts, to timber production, water protection and wildfire management. But demands have now overtaken the depleted workforce’s capabilities.
“It gets more and more challenging every year,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for White River. “The cuts we’ve seen, they’re not just nibbling around the edges; they’ve been significant. We can’t continue to go at pace when we had 40 more employees; we just have to cut the services we provide.”
The Dillon Ranger District in Silverthorne, for instance, used to employ 25 employees. Due to downsizing and essential cost-saving, that number is down to 17 after eight positions were effectively eliminated — with six openings presently vacant — leaving just 11 employees to do the job of a staff more than twice its size.
White River as a whole has 45 vacancies among its 150 positions tasked with covering 2.3-million acres of land. The shortfall has only contributed to making fulfilling the the desires of its visitors impossible.
Add to it the stripping down of federal funding, and it’s a dilemma with no clear solution. The same circumstances are affecting the 154 forests across the country, and, in the White River, the budget has been slashed by about 40 percent in just the last five years — from approximately $27 million in 2009-10, to an estimated $15-to-$16 million for 2015-16.
“We don’t have the federal funds we need to do the job adequately, that’s probably a given,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger for Dillon. “We recognize that this is busy district, a busy forest. I think we all wish we could keep up with the demand and have more employees patrolling and monitoring. So we look for help.”
That help has come in the way of non-federal assistance from nonprofits, local town and county governments and large volunteer efforts. Managing ever-increasing needs has forced the agency to become creative with partnerships, hiring seasonal workers and even utilizing workarounds, like temporary inmate workforces.
Through a workforce rehabilitation program for prisoners who have exhibited good behavior, the forest service is able to contract cheap labor and also get important work completed on timber and pile-burning projects, as well as with wildfire-management obligations. In trade, inmates from Rifle and Buena Vista through Colorado Correctional Industries are able to get outdoors, simultaneously taking advantage of rehabilitation opportunities through nature for this population.
As for volunteer endeavors, the Dillon Ranger District was the benefactor of 22,500 service hours in 2015, across an estimated 100 projects primarily during the summer. That equates to a value of $500,000, or 12.5 person-years — a measure that determines the number of employees it helps offset. That gets the district to about the 25 it previously employed.
Of that high volume of volunteer commitment, 8,500 hours were provided through Friends of the Dillon Ranger District (FDRD), an organization that helps support this section of the White River National Forest through education, outreach and general financial support. The 11-year-old nonprofit managed 58 projects, mostly trail building and improvements, at a value of $200,000 and incorporating more than 300 youth volunteers.
“When the forest service doesn’t have the manpower, then we can step in with volunteers to get the work done, essentially to support the Summit County communities as well as the forest service,” said Mike Connolly, FDRD’s executive director. “Part of our programming is an educational aspect, and a third of our programs are with youth groups; so we’re passing along to future generations forest stewardship because if we don’t get them involved now with the use of trails, then future generations won’t have these type of trails to hike, bike and walk on.”
These efforts and service hours have only become more vital with each passing year.
“In the past, it was groups like that often did the white-hat projects and extras,” said Fitzwilliams. “Now these volunteers and service groups do the critical work of the forest service, because we just don’t have the funding or people to do it.”
Despite collaborations with myriad other organizations — including, among others, the National Forest Fund (NFF) through its Ski Conservation Fund, Xcel Energy, Denver Water and countless other volunteer streams — White River is quickly reaching its ceiling for taking on any additional projects because of the amount of oversight that would take from its limited staff.
“We’re at a critical mass with the number of volunteers and partners (whom) we can manage well,” said Jackson. “We’re there already. That’s all we can handle with our given capacity. So it’s a dance.”
Another primary culprit to limitations consistently being thrust onto the national forest system is the redistribution of its federal funding going toward fighting forest fires. Although Colorado had a fairly low-key year for these often devastating blazes, last year set a record for the amount of acreage burned throughout the country.
These disasters of epic proportions have forced surging amounts of the overall budget being put toward fire expenditures. In 1995, just 16 percent of the available funding was dedicated to wildfire costs. Last year, it escalated all the way up to 52 percent, and some projections for 2025 suggest it may eat up as much as 67 percent of the forest service’s comprehensive moneys.
Aside from expensive equipment and other resources in the fight, fire staffing within the forest service has increased 114 percent since 1998 — from about 5,700 to more than 12,000 in 2015. As a result, staff dedicating to other forest needs has decreased by almost 40 percent, from approximately 18,000 in ’98 to fewer than 11,000 last year.
Many point to the dramatic ramping up of wildfires — particularly in the West — to climate change, which comes with it plenty of contention. No one can, however, can argue that these mass conflagrations are a mounting problem.
“I don’t think it’s up for debate that over the last decade we’ve experienced some of the warmest temperatures on record worldwide, as well as prolonged drought in many parts of the country,” said Jackson. “That’s just undeniable. The source of that seems to be what gets people stirred up. But that’s not for us to decide. When there’s a fire on the ground in the national forest, we’ve got to do something about it.”
Mix all of these issues together, and it’s a combustible scenario that only makes performing the traditional role of forest management by the federal agency increasingly difficult. High turnover rates in the White River because of the lofty demands of its employees and high cost of living only intensifies the obstacles locally in Summit County and the surrounding areas.
“We’ve taken our fair share of reductions, but so have other forests,” said Fitzwilliams. “The challenging part making us unique is the increasing demands of the forest the number of visits, the ski resorts and the demand for permits — and still with budgets going the opposite way. We’ve had to ask people to do more and more work, and there’s a limit to that. There really is, and we’re reaching some of those limits.”
It means less presence on the ground for enforcement, reduced road and facility maintenance and improvements and much more incremental steps with new projects, such as ski resort and trail expansion and upgrades. But it’s simply a reality of shrinking budgets — even if the expectations of these officials only continues to climb.
“When we lose employees, the work doesn’t go away,” said Jackson. “We have to backfill with existing employees, or we find temporary fixes. We want people to enjoy the outdoors, we want people to use the national forest. We take a certain level of pride in what we do, and we’d love to be able to keep up with that level of use and level of demand.
“It kind of stinks when we know there are things that we can’t address,” he added. “Some things just don’t get done, or done as quickly, I guess.”
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