New bills could help White River Forest | VailDaily.com

New bills could help White River Forest

EAGLE COUNTY — It took an act of Congress to allow the recent Epic Discovery recreational enhancement to take place on Vail Mountain. Celebrating that moment, U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy undersecretary Leslie Jones visited Vail from Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, and talked about another act of Congress that could enhance the recreational opportunities in the White River National Forest.

"In 1996, about 16 percent of the Forest Service budget was spent on fire service suppression," Jones said. "Now, it is well over 50 percent, and we anticipate in the next 10 to 15 years, if the cost of fire fighting continues to rise, it's going to be upwards of two-thirds of the Forest Service's budget . . . The number one thing we need to do is continue to work with Congress and encourage them to pass legislation that modernizes how we pay for fires, and enables the Forest Service to dip into some emergency funds when we have those catastrophic fires."

Cory Gardner, Colorado's junior senator in Washington, D.C., co-sponsored the recreational enhancement act as a congressman, and says after seeing that bill pass with universal support, he's feeling encouraged about the next steps Congress can take to help the Forest Service.

Gardner visited Vail Mountain today to see the recreational enhancements, known as Epic Discovery, provided by the 2011 bill.

"Right now, if you're a Forest Service fire fighter, you have a budget that's set on a 10-year average of fire fighting," Gardner said from Vail on Tuesday. "Once you consume that money, you start cannibalizing other areas . . . What we're trying to accomplish this year is to end this practice of fire borrowing."

Gardner is currently co-sponsoring a new bill — the Wildlife Disaster Funding Act — along with Colorado's senior member of the U.S. Senate, Michael Bennett, which would see to it that wildfire response is treated like other natural disasters.

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"It would be like a hurricane response or a flood response," Gardner said. "That way it would not be cannibalizing other existing program funding, it would be a true natural disaster approach."

HAVING FUN DURING RECESS

The U.S. Congress is currently on an 8-week recess known as the August work period. Gardner is taking the time away from D.C. to visit the national forest in Colorado and work on better forest management policies, among other things.

"To be in Vail, to be in Eagle County, to be a part of this incredible outdoor experience, is beyond the greatest of opportunities I think people have," he said.

Earlier this week, Gardner toured the Department of Defense's High Altitude Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Regional Airport.

"I was looking for fishing spots from the plane," he said of his tour of the skies. "Also found some trails I didn't know were there."

While on Vail Mountain, Gardner hiked the new Eagle Loops trail and explored the animal abilities exhibits on the trail. He also rode the new Forest Flyer alpine coaster.

"Fun isn't left or right," he said. "In fact people have fun making fun of the left and right."

Gardner said the trip to Eagle County was a way for him to explore what his family — native Coloradans — has enjoyed for generations.

"And that's the great outdoors," he said. "The beauty of what we are so blessed to live with."

OUTDOOR REC ACT

Another benefit the White River National Forest could see from upcoming legislation would involve a simple study of the benefits it brings to our area and the country as a whole, Gardner said.

A bill Gardner co-authored — known as the Outdoor REC (Recreation's Economic Contributions) Act — recently cleared the Senate Commerce Committee and would call for an annual report to be presented to Congress studying the economic impact of the outdoor recreation economy in the U.S.

"In manufacturing, somebody will come in and say 'we should have this legislation, because look at the economic impact manufacturing has,'" Gardner said. "The show the manufacturing study and say 'what the study shows, though, is if we had X,Y, Z policy, we could have an even bigger impact on the economy.' We don't have that same impetus on outdoor recreation. If we had this study, we would be able to say hey, look, if we were able to have more revenue turned back to the White River National Forest, so they could better manage their land, we would be able to have more economic impact."