National forests invade immediate US Congress action | Colorado News


DENVER (AP) – A few years ago, the US Forest Service spoke to Eagle County officials and broke bad news: the federal agency was understaffed and would close campgrounds in the county mountainous area that includes Vail, where outdoor recreation is king.

Eagle County responded by spending its own public money to pay USFS employees, an unusual arrangement that has become commonplace in the highlands of Colorado, where waves of tourists have poured into some of the most forested forests. most visited in the country.

“It has rubbed some members of the community the wrong way because it’s federal property and they should be managing it with federal money,” Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said. “But if this money is not allocated, they manage it by closing. They don’t have the people.

Colorado ski areas send about $ 25 million a year in fees to the federal treasury in exchange for being on federal land, and only a small fraction goes back to those forests for management. It’s a frustrating contrast for ski companies who can’t get expansions and upgrades approved in a timely manner and for local governments who must maintain forests or lose the goose that lays the golden eggs on their economies.

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“Why is this money generated here and then sent to Washington and poured into the treasury,” said Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula, “instead of going to things the forests need? “

Coloradians in Congress from both political parties have sought a solution for several years, but nothing has yet made its way to a president’s office. The latest bill has the support of the two U.S. senators from Colorado, as well as Democratic Representative Joe Neguse and Republican Representative Lauren Boebert, who together represent the entire high country.

Neguse calls the current arrangement “scandalous”, saying the Forest Service “was unable or unwilling to invest the resources necessary to do the job it is required to do under federal law “.

– “A lot to manage”

The White River National Forest, which spans nine counties and a dozen ski areas in northwest Colorado, is the most popular forest in the United States. In 2008, his Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District in Eagle County had seven full-time staff responsible for frontcountry management. allow, interact with visitors, maintain facilities.

A decade later, in 2018, he had one, according to the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments.

“It’s a lot of forest for one guy,” said Jon Stavney, executive director of the board, “You wouldn’t run a sheriff’s department that way.” His organization sent a letter to Congress in 2018 warning of the shortage and urging action.

Ski areas saw the problem first. For the 122 nation’s residents who reside on federal land, slope changes must be approved by the US Forest Service, which is studying their environmental impact. But the multi-year delays mean that “ski areas are slow to upgrade critical infrastructure,” Alan Thereforeroth, chief operating officer of Arapahoe Basin, recently told a congressional panel.

In 2018, mountain counties realized the problem went beyond ski areas: Rangers were tasked with surveying large swathes of land, making it difficult for them to put out all the burning campfires.

Summit County voters created a fund in 2018 that is used for wildfire mitigation and ranger work. Summit and Eagle counties have also created frontcountry ranger programs – partnerships between counties and the forest service to add patrols in the White River National Forest at the expense of county taxpayers.

Since 2019, Eagle County and its towns have spent $ 387,000 on frontcountry rangers, according to a county spokesperson. In 2020, when the coronavirus prompted many to have fun in the outdoors, these rangers put out 32 fires and carried 5,000 pounds of trash, along with human and canine waste, abandoned motorhomes and campsites. illegal.

“People come here, want to access our trails and our fourteen, and they are overrun with people. They need management. Parking needs to be managed. Trails need management. It’s a lot to deal with, ”said McQueeney. “We’re happy to do it, but we hear criticism: ‘Is this really our role? So far, every year we have managed to say ‘Yes, that is true’ and our constituents agree with us. “

Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence calls the unusual arrangement an “insurance policy” for her tourism dependent county, which includes Breckenridge, “because if a massive wildfire destroys Summit County, the economic impact would be devastating for generations to come “.

Pitkin County also spends money to maintain national forest lands and Garfield County pays staff at Hanging Lake in the White River National Forest, according to the Northwestern Colorado Council of Governments. Several mayors and county commissioners told the Denver Post they felt their hands were tied; the threat of fires and the closure of campgrounds forced them to act.

– “A little more perfect”

Earlier this month, the Ski Hill Resources for Economic Development Act, or SHRED Act, made its debut in Congress. Forests that account for more than $ 15 million in ski costs, like White River, could spend 60% on staffing, trail improvements and other ranger work. Those that consume less than $ 15 million a year, including Colorado’s other nine national forests, would retain 75%.

The bill’s chances look good: it enjoys bipartisan support both in the House, where two Democrats and two Republicans introduced it, as well as in the Senate, where it is sponsored by Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming.

The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, will back the bill with some technical changes, according to Jennifer Eberlien, deputy deputy chief of the National Forest System. And no opposition was expressed in a recent two-hour hearing in the House.

(The audience briefly gained national attention when Texas GOP Representative Louie Gohmert asked Eberlein if the Forest Service could move the moon’s orbit and Earth’s orbit to combat climate change. Eberlein said she should return to Gohmert.)

Neguse, who chaired the hearing, expects the bill to be amended this summer before going to the plenary chamber for a vote.

When asked why the Forest Service was underfunded, Neguse said “administration after administration in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, (have) neglected the agency.” Because the vast majority of national forests are in the West, “it may be a little difficult for Washington landowners … to fully appreciate the magnitude of the need,” he added.

For high-country mayors, commissioners, and county directors who have felt pressured to spend their constituents’ taxpayer dollars tending to federal forests, the SHRED Act is a welcome alternative to the bizarre arrangement they agreed to. for several years.

“In a perfect world, that wouldn’t happen,” McQueeney said, “and maybe this bill will make it a little more perfect.”

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