Despite having $3 million less than last year, the White River National Forest has no plans to close or scale back campground operations this summer.
That was the message delivered by David Francomb, acting district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest (WRNF) to the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday.
Francomb updated the commissioners on a variety of topics, including the Forest Service’s budget and staffing levels for this year. He said some program areas will see between a 5 and 15 percent reduction, although he didn’t specify to elected officials what they would be. He said after the meeting that work on trails throughout the district may be reduced.
“I won’t have as robust of a trail crew,” Francomb said.
However, he told commissioners that not much is changing from last year; the district is down only one seasonal employee for the summer compared to 2012.
“We’ll have a full crew for the second year in a row,” he said.
This year’s seasonal workforce includes 23 employees and three full-time volunteers. Of the 23 seasonal workers, 12 are funded through the Forest Service’s budget and by fees collected at parks like the Maroon Bells area.
There will be five wilderness crew members, one seasonal employee and four interns that are funded by an Aspen Skiing Co. grant. There are three interns supported by the Student Conservation Association, and a grant given by the State of Colorado Off Highway Vehicle program will support two seasonal employees. The Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities will provide one intern for the White River National Forest Service’s Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
Francomb also noted in a different discussion that last year the district did not have a law enforcement officer but this year it does. That person will be on the job later this month and will be responsible for more than 600 acres.
“It’s a lot of ground for one individual to cover,” he said.
Local Forest Service officials had been waiting to see what the fall-out would be from the federal sequestration, which comprised of about $85 million in automatic spending cuts.
In a letter regarding the sequester’s impact on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier this spring that an estimated 670 forest sites nationwide would close due to the sequester. Those would include campgrounds, picnic areas, trails, and visitor centers.
But it appears that no sites in the 2.3-million acre White River National Forest will be shuttered based on Francomb’s update to commissioners on Tuesday.
He also provided a summary of where the WRNF is in terms of processing six applications for a permit to drill (APD) by Houston-based SG Interests in the Thompson Divide outside of Carbondale.
The scope of the Forest Service’s analysis is to make sure the applications are complete. The Forest Service will then enlist a group of agency specialists, like biologists and hydrologists, to conduct field survey work at the proposed drill pads to determine what would be the least impactful activity there, and what the oil and gas company can do to minimize its work by engaging in best practices. Those site visits are scheduled for this summer and are open to the public, Francomb said.
After the site work and field survey work is done, a National Environmental Policy Act analysis will be conducted, and the process allows for an objection period from the public.
Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman asked if the Forest Service has the authority to determine if the area is not appropriate for natural gas drilling. Pitkin County, along with other local governments, have publicly opposed oil and gas drilling on the Thompson Divide.
Francomb said the only purview the Forest Service has is to determine if drilling is viable on a particular parcel of land. The Forest Service in 1993 made the decision to make lands on the WRNF available for oil and gas drilling.
“The Forest Service can’t say at this point that it’s not appropriate,” Francomb told the commissioners, adding that the Forest Service recognizes that SG Interests and other companies hold valid leases in the divide area.
The WRNF is in the middle of finalizing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that involves an analysis of leasing on federal lands, and updates the decision 20 years ago governing oil and gas drilling on the forest. The final EIS is expected to be completed next year, and the process will allow for public comment and an objection period. The Record of Decision by the Forest Service may or may not affect the leases in the Thompson Creek area. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last month extended leases, which were going to expire this spring, for two oil and gas companies. Pitkin County, along with the town of Carbondale and the city of Glenwood Springs, has appealed that decision, arguing that the leases should be nullified.
The Forest Service in its Record of Decision and EIS has four alternatives, which range from leaving the leasing program as it is to ending it all together on WRNF lands.
Another alternative, the WRNF’s proposed action, is to reduce the amount of land that is available for leasing — it would limit lands open to gas exploration to 260,264 acres, and make 1.2 million acres open only through an appeal, and legally close 800,555 acres of forest lands.
A fourth alternative proposes the same amount of acreage in the proposed action but would impose rules known as “No Surface Occupancy” on a portion of roadless areas in areas where leasing is allowed.