If you spend enough time in the Roaring Fork Valley, you’ll hear this sentence: the White River National Forest is the busiest, most visited National Forest in the country. But as the agency’s budget keeps dropping, officials say there will be significant changes down the road.
On a sunny day in Glenwood Springs, area resident Jim Minch is out for a walk. He and his family live in the area and recreate in the White River National Forest.
"We hike in the Forest Service areas and we use their maps too,” he said.
Minch said he feels the agency meets his family’s needs when it comes to those activities.
Minch is one of many, many people spending time in the White River National Forest. The number of folks recreating continues to grow, hitting 13 million visitors last year. One-hundred-seventy-thousand of them went to the Maroon Bells, and another 150,000 to Hanging Lake, plus skier visits at Aspen and Vail. The Forest Service is also at the forefront of allowing ski areas to develop more summer activities.
That popularity is in stark contrast with a budget that keeps going down.
“Financially it looks bad,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor for the White River. He’s been managing a shrinking budget for several years and that will continue in 2016.
“We took more reductions, pretty significant reductions,” he said about the most current budget. “We’ve dropped almost 50 percent in the six years I’ve been here.”
So far the budget this year is around $18 million.
Making the shrinking numbers even worse is how money gets diverted at the last minute for firefighters. Fitzwilliams has been advocating for changing that, as part of a directive coming down from the White House.
In the meantime, the White River is reaching a tipping point, when it comes to how to pay for staff, keeping offices open, campgrounds and other requirements.
“If this trends continues, there’s going to be some major changes,” said Fitzwilliams. “And we have to start shifting expectations.”
He and others are reviewing areas around the White River National Forest.
“We have to prioritize and invest in the ones that may be the highest use, or look to see if other people can take them over. Can they be run by a private concession? All those are things we’re looking at,” he said.
And it could mean more fees. During the current review, officials are analyzing overcrowded locations in the Maroon Bells and Castle Creek areas and a new management plan is expected to be proposed this summer.
The irony is the White River collected about $28.5 million last year. That’s fees, timber sales and other revenue. Only a fraction stays in the area; the rest goes to Washington, DC. At this point the Obama administration has not told the Forest Service to ask Congress to change that.
“I think with the level of saturation that we’re getting in the Valley, it would behoove us and the Forest Service to be able to maintain how pristine this area is,” said Jessica Starodoj.
She is also enjoying a warm spring day in Glenwood Springs. Starodoj just returned to the Roaring Fork Valley from Los Angeles and in general she supports doing what it takes to make sure the Forest is well taken care of.
“So it’s disheartening to know that they actually don’t have much of a budget to work,” she said. “Considering how many more people are drawn to this area.”
In the meantime, the agency will continue doing more with less, and relying on volunteers and grants.