Smokey’s budget a bear |

Smokey’s budget a bear

Cliff Thompson
Daily file photo Due to federal budget cuts, the White River National Forest, which surrounds the valley, will merge its Minturn and Eagle offices into one operation downvalley.

With undeveloped land and money in short supply, emergency fire, health and safety agencies are joining forces to create a shared building in Wolcott just east of the local post office.

The proposed building would be 12,000 to 15,000 square feet in size and is being eyed as a facility to house equipment and officers for the Eagle River Fire Protection District, the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District, the federal Interagency Fire Agency as well as the Eagle County sheriff’s deputies and ambulance crews.

It’s a concept that has been discussed since 1999 but now appears closer to reality. Construction could begin in 2005, participants said, and the building will be modeled after an existing facility shared by emergency agencies at the Garfield County Airport.

“The more people you bring to the table the more you can cut costs,” sad Bob Leighty, assistant fire management officer for the Interagency Fire Office, which comprises the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

The building would be built in stages and the first portion is expected to cots $2.5 million. It would contain garage bays for emergency equipment, offices and some living quarters. The second phase, to be built at a later date, would have more living quarters and some training rooms.

“We could have a lot of partners, here,” said Barry Smith, Eagle County emergency management coordinator.

Continuing growth in the Wolcott area is creating the need for emergency services, Smith said, though the federal agencies are ready to move faster than the local agencies.

“Everybody except the feds are looking at this for a few years down the road before the need is there,” Smith said.

There have been discussions about using federal seasonal wildland fire crews to bolster the ranks of local fire departments that are busiest in the winter, Smith said.

The 2 to 3 acres of land would be supplied by the Bureau of Land Management. The next step, inking a letter of intent between the partners, will allow the bureau to begin dedicating the land for the facility, Leighty said.

The U.S. Forest Service and its mascot, Smokey the Bear, are on a fiscal diet prescribed by Congress.

And its effects are being felt at the Eagle and Minturn-area districts of the White River National Forest. The most visible impact will be a reduction in seasonal staffing and combination downvalley of the agency’s Eagle and Minturn offices.

An unexpected budget cut occurred halfway through the fiscal year, causing some operational changes on the White River National Forest. While its total budget actually increased this year – from 2003’s $16.9 million to $17.3 million – $500,000 of that has been earmarked for non-discretionary projects such as fighting fires. The remainder is being absorbed by inflation and increasing fixed costs, said Glenda Wilson, acting White River forest supervisor.

Coupled with inflation, that eats into a budget, leaving less money for on-the-ground management, she said.

“We’re on a diet,” Wilson said. “You’ll see fewer summer seasonal employees.”

The two district offices in Eagle County started their fiscal year in October with a presumed budget of $1.7 million, contingent on congressional funding. It was approximately the same amount that was budgeted the year before. Last month the district offices in Eagle County were allocated $1.3 million.

“We put together a budget a couple of years ahead,” Wilson said. “When Congress funds things it doesn’t always match up with what we submitted. Not having as many administrative facilities is one of the ways we can control our fixed costs.”

This year, Congress appropriated less for the forest service. “It’s not any different than what any of the federal agencies are going through,” she said.

Money on the ground

In Eagle and Minturn, and across the sprawling forest, the amount of the budget cut this year has raised eyebrows and accelerated consolidation efforts.

“The final allocation was just 75 percent of what we had planned and didn’t find out until halfway through the year,” said Cal Wettstein, now the district ranger for both the Eagle and Minturn district offices. “We’re trying to maintain service to the public and do it in a way we can afford so we can put more money on the ground. It happens all the time.”

But consolidation has been the buzzword for some time at the forest service, and this week, one of the most visible steps was taken. Wettstein took over as district ranger in both local offices. He began duties this week in Eagle after Eagle District Ranger Cathy Kahlow was promoted to a position in the forest supervisor’s office in Glenwood Springs last winter.

“We’ve been moving this way for quite some time,” Wettstein said. “We’ve had a continual reduction in budgets that’s been going on for the last 10 years and looks like a continuing trend.

“We’re already sharing timber staff and engineers,” he added. “It takes a set number of people to operate an office. Wherever we can combine that we’re trying to do so.”

The integration of the Minturn’s Holy Cross ranger station and the Eagle office under one downvalley roof is expected to occur over the next five to 10 years.

Consolidation not new

In the early days of the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest, which was formed in 1891, district ranger’s offices were located a day’s horseback ride from each other. Wettstein said there were offices in Leadville, Red Cliff, Sheephorn, Avon, Derby, Eagle, Crystal River, the Fryingpan River valley and in Aspen.

Modern roads and communication systems have lessened the need for widespread offices, Wettstein said. The move to the west in Eagle County will also accommodate employees forced by rising property prices in resort areas to move downvalley.

Wettstein will now oversee 25 full-time employees at the Minturn office and 12 in Eagle and up to 25 seasonal employees.

“One of the reasons I’m optimistic this arrangement will work is that there is a top-notch staff on both districts,” he said. “If this weren’t the case, we’d be really in trouble.”

Similar steps are being taken to combine the Aspen and Sopris district offices, and the Meeker district will share a building with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said Wilson.

Consolidation will mean the sole Eagle County district office for the Forest Service will be located in Eagle and the sole district office in the Roaring Fork River valley will be in Aspen. Small satellite offices will also be maintained at Minturn and in Carbondale.

Wettstein said the 2,500 square-foot Eagle office was built in the 1940s while the 9,000 square-foot Minturn office was built in 1990. Other facilities, such as the housing the Forest Service owns in Minturn and Eagle, is old and needs to be remodeled, he said.

“We don’t have the money for that,” he said.

Some of those parcels of land in Minturn and in Eagle will be sold or traded for land that can used for a new office, Wettstein said.

“We’ll still have a visitor’s center at Dowd Junction,” he said. “We’re hoping to get some type of partnership (with private business) for the Dowd Junction office. We know there’s demand.”

Gotta fight fires, too

To cope with the reduced budgets, the U.S. Forest Service is slowing hiring to all but essential personnel. Training and travel has been restricted to only essential employees, said Cal Wettstein, district ranger for the agency’s two offices in the valley.

On top of that, existing full-time White River Forest employees are being encouraged to volunteer for firefighting duties this year because fire pay comes from a different budget. That’s not unusual. It’s been a routine for most forest service employees over the last decade, Wettstein said.

Even with his recent extra duties, Wettstein said, he did not receive a raise in pay. And because of the budget cut, his pay this year will be 20 days short of being fully funded, he said.

He’ll have to make that salary shortfall up with fire duty when the expected summer fire season arrives, he said.

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