The Forest Service is Burning
When I was a kid, let’s say 40 years ago, I remember camping at several campgrounds and doing all the campsite fun stuff. I even remember meeting the Forest Ranger in charge of the campground and thinking what a cool job he had. From those experiences I developed a deep love for the outdoors and at one time I desired to become a Forest Ranger. But those days have long passed and the Campground Ranger position long since eliminated as budget cuts and reallocated funds to fight fires have changed the Forest Service I grew up with.
In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget. In 2017, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfire. Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel since 1995. Additionally, the Agency has a backlog of more than 6,000 special use permits awaiting completion, and over 80 million acres of National Forest System land are in need of restoration to reduce the risk of wildfire, insect epidemics, and forest diseases.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a believer in smaller government and less bureaucracy. I also would blame much of the sickness our forests are experiencing today as result of over protective policies from the 60’s and 70’s. With shrinking budgets the new Forest Service has had to do more with less, but the unintended consequence is that they have developed a new policy of “no”. For a growing Outdoor Recreation Industry this creates astronomical challenges just to be able to lead a family of four on a hike in the woods.
There are two major challenges with a big concern to follow. The first is that the Forest Service is operating on management plans that is greater than 20 years old. The Forest Plan that the Pike National Forest is operating on is dated 1984 and the staffing requirements for that plan have been slashed to the point that much of the plan can no longer be completed, resulting in a back log of project and little to no hope for new items.
With the Outdoor Recreation Industry expanding and growing, providing $28 Billion to the Colorado economy, we need a reliable agency that will help provide opportunities for business growth and development. Unfortunately the path to success is laid with a 1980’s approach, including NEPA study requirements along with Capacity studies, all to the tune of thousands of dollars just to take a family hiking in the woods…
The second challenge is the fires. They not only keep burning our overgrown forests, but they also keep burning the dollars needed to operate the forest. This has led to severe budget cuts within the agency and a new look at the Forest Service priorities and systems. This could be a good thing but that leads us to my concerns.
Early this month, the USFS published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). 83 CFR 302 (January 3, 2016). The agency is proposing to revise its NEPA procedures with the goal of increasing the efficiency of environmental analysis. This notice presents some opportunities to reshape how the USFS manages, but also poses some risk of undermining a bedrock environmental law if the agency is pressured to go too far in revising its NEPA procedures.
I strongly support efforts to improve the permitting process for outfitters and guides on Forest Service lands and waters. This process has historically been difficult to navigate for outdoor leaders who want to take people out on public lands. Focused attention by the Department on the improvement of this process would increase guided recreational opportunities. I also strongly support the protection of these public lands for generations to come.
Please consider taking some time before February 2nd to add your comments to this process and then get your calendar out and start planning that camping trip this summer!
David Leinweber, Chairman of PPORA