Northwest Colorado Council of Governments pleads with federal representatives for restoration of forest funding
With one of the worst wildfire seasons in state and national memory continuing to unfold into the fall, local legislators in northwest Colorado are pleading federal representatives to push Congress on restoring funding for U.S. Forest Service districts with forestland in their counties.
The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments sent Sen. Michael Bennett, Sen. Cory Gardner, Rep. Jared Polis and Rep. Scott Tipton a letter last month, urging the Colorado delegation to put pressure on the rest of Congress to restore funding that has been slashed over the past few decades.
The council represents five counties — Garfield, Jackson, Eagle, Summit and Pitkin — and the cities of Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs.
The U.S. Forest Service funding cuts have coincided with worsening wildfire seasons and drought, with increasing amounts of local, state and federal resources being incinerated in wildfires every year. Fires have also shifted a large amount of resources away from important Forest Service duties such as forest management and seasonal ranger patrols, which are meant to prevent forest fires.
“The escalating cost of fighting fire has imperiled the operational effectiveness of the (Forest Service) in recent years,” the letter said, “and impaired the organization’s ability to manage the national forests as premier public assets and multi-use natural resources.”
Increase in Visitors adds to strain
Aside from fires, national forests have to also deal with a huge increase in visitors every year. White River National Forest, for example, sees 15 million visitors a year, making it the most visited national forest in the country. Back in 2008, the White River National Forest had seven full-time seasonal employees, but has only a single full-time seasonal ranger this year. The funding for the district has been decimated from $270,000 in 2008 to $40,000 in 2018.
“It is distressing that the No. 1 most visited National Forest in the nation, which sends $24 million in revenues from skier area fees annually to the federal government, can only afford to fund one seasonal ranger to manage one of the busiest recreation programs in the country,” the letter said.
The letter points out how local towns and counties have been spending their own money to pay for federal employees to work the forests due to a lack of federal funds. Summit County and local towns raised $135,000 this year to pay for a four-person team of seasonal forest rangers and overtime for trained sheriff’s deputies on dispersed campsite patrols.
In Eagle County, a mayors and managers group has prepared an outline of local support that towns and the county may consider as those governments are planning their 2019 budgets. Per that proposal, an annual appropriation of $149,000 would pay for a permanent supervisor, three seasonal employees, support for developed campgrounds and covering dispersed camping areas, trailhead support and other enforcement and education projects.
But the letter states that this “bake sale” approach to funding forest service rangers is unsustainable.
“These communities will always be good neighbors (to the forest service), but as markets rise and fall, it cannot be said for certain whether such financial capacity will continue,” the letter said.
The letter ends by imploring Colorado’s federal representatives to advocate with the congressional appropriations to restore funding to five key management areas — the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forest, the Pike and San Isabel National Forest, the Gunnison National Forest and the White River National Forest. The letter also urges the Colorado delegation to consider amending or replacing the Ski Area Retention Bill with a broader solution, as it is not enough to keep up with the increasing demands on local resources.
“These lands are enjoyed by people from across the country,” the letter said.
“A well-funded Forest Service is a federal responsibility.”