Forest Service official visits Walking Mountains | VailDaily.com

Forest Service official visits Walking Mountains

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com
Heidi Beattie and Sally Kelly descend the Gore Creek Trail in East Vail on Thursday. The Gore Creek trail is one of the highest traffic trails in the Vail Valley.
Townsend Bessent | Townsend@vaildaily.com |

AVON — Residents of mountain communities, more than most, understand the importance of public lands. Even then, it is easy for them to underestimate the impact that the U.S. Forest Service can make in the daily lives of area residents.

Everything from the quality and availability of water to preventing and fighting wildfires are all partially tasked to the Forest Service. At the same time, the agency is also in charge of helping people access national lands, all on an ever restricted budget.

All that and more were the topics of conversation at a Vail Symposium event Thursday featuring U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Leslie Weldon at Walking Mountains Science Center. Weldon started her career as a summer hire on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington. She has held regional and national biologist positions and as deputy chief of the National Forest System, Weldon manages projects for 155 national forests and 20 grasslands in the United States.

“As residents of the Vail Valley, we have a deep understanding and appreciation of the value of Forest Service land, but it can still be easy to take for granted how much goes into maintaining and protecting these areas,” said Tracey Flower, the Vail Symposium’s executive director. “The program with Leslie Weldon was an opportunity for all of us to gain a deeper understanding of the work the United States Forest Service does, from Washington, D.C., to Minturn, to protect and maintain the forests we cherish.”

‘A fire season for the books’

The biggest challenge the agency faces is in fighting wildfires — and finding the money to do so.

Weldon said this wildfire season is one for the books.

“About 5.8 million acres burn in an average year. This year, 8.5 millions acres have burned so far, and we have a few weeks left in the wildfire season,” Weldon said, pointing to fires in California, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Montana.

After 80 years of suppressing fires, the warming climate has created a perfect storm for wildfires. The Forest Service catches 98 percent of forest fires immediately, Weldon said, but it’s the 2 percent that cause the majority of the damage.

That’s translated into some astronomical costs for the Forest Service, and in an era where the threat of fire is much greater, the agency is struggling to pay for those efforts.

To put it into perspective, in the mid ’90s, The Forest Service budget for fighting fires was 15 percent. Now it’s just less than 50 percent.

“It’s just not sustainable. We’re really at the point where the impact on all our other programs is becoming quite evident,” Weldon said. “There are some solutions proposed. We want to tap into funds we would for other natural disasters, such as for a tropical storm or hurricane, and use FEMA funds for that 2 percent of fires. It’s one of the highest priorities for our agency to figure this out.”

From Camp Hale to pine beetles

Perhaps one of the biggest ways Eagle County residents see the Forest Service at work is in caring for the pine beetle infested forests, which in turn create risks for massive wildfires. The Forest Service has been at work thinning out the forests, encouraging healthier growth.

“A big part of Colorado was really ground zero for some of this, starting in the early 2000s,” said Weldon, who commented on how she could see the lingering effects of pine beetles on her drive up from Denver. “Some of that’s natural, but it’s not natural to have such successive hatches of these beetles. Usually the winter cycle takes care of it. It’s really devastating and it changes our environment and our approach.”

That work all falls under the Forest Service’s task of maintaining the health and sustainability of natural lands, including the so-called “working lands,” where people get their water, timber and minerals.

An important part of that success is working with partnering groups. Weldon pointed to several such projects at work in Eagle County. One is the Camp Hale restoration project, which proposes to restore water tables in the valley that were damaged when the area was dredged to create U.S. Army training grounds. The Forest Service is hoping to partner with the Army Corp of Engineers to fund that project, Weldon said.

Be on the lookout for some Forest Service outreach programs in the future, such as a plan to get every fourth-grader in the country into a public land (community, state or national park, for example) during the school year. In addition, each child will get a pass to visit a national park. Such programs work to ensure that people connect with, and therefore care about, the natural environment, Weldon said.

“As more people move to urban areas, there’s more of a disconnect between people and nature,” Weldon said. “There’s a real need to reconnect people, both because it’s shown there are some real health benefits to it, and also so that natural lands will be something they value.”

Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.