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Holy Cross Ranger District has been able to hire firefighters, seasonal workers despite federal freeze

EAGLE — Despite current political rhetoric, so far the Trump administration has not made any sweeping changes to how the local national forest is managed.

Aaron Mayville, District Ranger for the Holy Cross Ranger District, recently told the Eagle County Commissioners that very little has changed, except for a nationwide hiring freeze for federal workers.

These sorts of changes happen most of the time when a new administration hits town, Mayville said.

While there’s a hiring freeze in place now, Mayville said he managed to fill all his openings before it hit. Summer staffers and firefighters are exempted from the freeze.

“The Forest Service hires 20,000 seasonal employees, so that would have been a big hit,” Mayville said.

The Holy Cross District employs 20 permanent staffers, and 30 to 40 seasonal staffers, Mayville said.

Hanging Lake

The Holy Cross Ranger District is 700,000 acres from one end to the other — that’s nearly 1,100 square miles — and includes Hanging Lake, just across the Garfield County line in Glenwood Canyon.

Hanging Lake saw 137,000 visitors last summer, up from 90,000 three years ago.

“We’re seeing it skyrocket,” Mayville said.

The Forest Service is considering creating some kind of shuttle system to take visitors to and from the trailhead, since the parking lot there fills to overflowing so often. The Forest Service may go with a private operator, or maybe a public agency such as Eagle County’s ECO or the Roaring Fork Valley’s RFTA. You would have to pay a fee to ride the bus — but there’s no word on how much that will be.

More shuttles and fewer cars would give the area a chance to breathe a little bit, Mayville said.

Trail help

Speaking of help from the public, the Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association last year launched a GoFundMe page and raised $60,000 in three months.

“Washington called and asked, ‘What’s going on over there?’” Mayville said.

With that money the Holy Cross Ranger District hired a trail ranger, a seasonal job.

“I understand some districts do not encourage this sort of public participation,” said County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.

Last year, 29 trails covering about 90 miles were adopted by local volunteer groups. This year’s is to add 12 more trails and trail segments to the mix, Mayville said.

The district has 550 miles of trails. The Holy Cross District budget allows the ranger district to hire two trail rangers, who try to maintain all of those trails.

Runs on recreation

The White River National Forest, where we live, runs on recreation, with around 15 million visitors a year, up from 13 million in 2012. That number of visitors far exceeds the combined annual totals at Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks.

“That means 7 million to 8 million people are coming here not to ski,” Mayville said. “There’s a constant balance we try to strike between the visitors who come from out of state and out of the county, and those of us who live here. We do a pretty good job,” Mayville said.

Fire funding

The Holy Cross District also runs on money, with an annual budget of $15.2 million.

Mayville said the Forest Service is the only federal agency that handles wildfire and other natural disasters out of its operating budget — 57 percent was dedicated to wildfire last year — instead from a separate fund. In 2003, firefighting took 16 percent of the forest’s budget.

Last summer’s Red Table fire was the most recent. It was 22 acres — not that big, Mayville said — but it grew from a quarter acre to 10 acres in about an hour.

That one relatively small fire cost $580,000 to fight. Because there’s a big power line running through there, and because Sylvan Lake was also threatened, firefighters called in air tankers to drop fire retardant on the blaze.

In the near future, the Forest Service is hoping to use some prescribed burns to reduce the fuel on the ground and, hopefully, mitigate some wildfire risk, Mayville said.

This summer’s fire outlook is about average, Mayville said.

“We’re at 150 percent snowpack for the Upper Colorado River area. That means we’re on pace for another average fire year,” Mayville said.

Restoring the river

The Forest Service still working on its Camp Hale project. Among those staffers squeezed in ahead of the federal hiring freeze, Mayville managed to hire an archaeologist dedicated to the project, as well as a team leader and a writer and editor to document the project.

When the Army built Camp Hale during World War II as a training site for the 10th Mountain Division, the Army straightened the Eagle River, which made construction less complicated. It also created future ecological problems. Healthy rivers don’t run in a straight line.

The Camp Hale project is to make the river again meander through the area, as it did before the world went to war for the second time in a generation.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.


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