As campgrounds open to the public this weekend, officials in the White River National Forest are still waiting to hear how federal cuts will affect their operations.
Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for the White River National Forest (WRNF), said he expects to hear from a U.S. Forest Service regional office next week on exactly how much his budget will be reduced.
It’s been estimated that the WRNF will receive $3 million less than last year, producing between 5 and 15 percent in program cuts across the forest. But “we still don’t have final numbers,” Fitzwilliams said.
The WRNF has vacancies in 24 permanent positions that haven’t been filled. Fitzwilliams noted that that is substantial considering the 2.3 million-acre forest employs 125 people total.
He said he hopes that the WRNF gets a little more money than what is expected. In the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, there are four permanent positions that are vacant, which Fitzwilliams hopes to fill.
“I’m feeling better than I did a month ago,” he said of the budget cuts.
The financial uncertainty in the WRNF stems from the delay in approving the federal budget in Washington.
“It’s a challenge because we are so late in the year,” Fitzwilliams said, adding that last year, he had final budget numbers on May 1.
It’s challenging because the Forest Service has numerous contracts that need to be finalized in July, with companies doing work on roads, bridges, culverts and other maintenance on public land.
“What seems simple is not,” Fitzwilliams said.
Still, even with the expected cuts, the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District has no plans to close or scale back campground operations this summer in the forest.
This year’s seasonal workforce in the district includes 23 employees and three full-time volunteers. The district is only down one seasonal employee from 2012.
But there are between 50 and 60 fewer seasonal workers than last year, and that will be felt in other districts in the WRNF.
“Sometimes it doesn’t even out between the districts,” Fitzwilliams said.
To offset the loss in federal funding, the WRNF relies on volunteers, interns and grants to help manage the forest.
This summer in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, 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 Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.
Fitzwilliams noted that the Forest Conservancy, a nonprofit organization, is helping with work at Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon.
“Between volunteers, donations and grants, we’re able to keep the doors open,” he said. “We are fortunate to have a giving, caring volunteer base.”