Local ramifications of the forced across-the-board federal budget cuts, known as “sequestration,” are likely to be felt in the forest and at the airport.
The $85 billion in automatic spending cuts became law Friday, as federal lawmakers failed to pass new budget legislation. The sequester’s impacts will play out over the coming weeks and months, as local federal employees and resources are trimmed. Exactly where and when they’ll hit Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley remains unclear to federal officials in Colorado.
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 an estimated 670 forest sites nationwide would close due to the sequester. Those would include campgrounds, picnic areas, trails, and visitor centers.
But the agency hasn’t yet disclosed what sites in the 2.3-million acre White River National forest will be shuttered.
“At this level we don’t know specifically about the effects yet,” said Forest Service regional spokesperson Chris Strebig.
The sequester’s provisions cut the Forest Service’s wildland fire management budget down to $132 million. Vilsack, in a memorandum to the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote that the budget is $42 million below the average annual cost of fighting forest fires nationwide. Those dollars are also normally used to hire seasonal firefighters and workers to do fire mitigation.
Worker furloughs and not hiring seasonal employees would likely also impact trail maintenance, trash pickup, and other services in the White River, along with fewer forest law enforcement officers on the job.
A White House memorandum on sequester impacts in Colorado also noted it would slow oil and gas leasing permits and environmental reviews for drilling on public lands.
Local officials are additionally preparing for slowed operations at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport due to the sequester cuts.
Expected widespread furloughs of Transportation Security Administration workers nationwide will lead to longer lines getting through security, according to airport director Jim Elwood.
“People will need to plan on getting to the airport with some extra time,” he said.
For now, Elwood said, local air traffic controllers won’t be affected and Aspen isn’t on the list of control towers being closed by the FAA due to the sequester. Federal grant money at the airport, which paid for the airport’s 2011 runway extension and ongoing master plan, isn’t on the federal chopping block, because it comes from user-generated fees and not taxpayer dollars.
But as time goes on and federal workforce furloughs continue, Elwood warned, all of the administrative and support systems that keep airports like Aspen’s running will be less productive.
Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Katie Martinez works as a volunteer at the Aspen District Ranger Station on Friday afternoon. Martinez was hoping to get hired as a seasonal employee this summer with the U.S. Forest Service, however she is worried her chances of employment will be limited due to the effects of the sequester and budget cuts.
“Obviously there are going to be impacts across the entire airport and air traffic control system,” he said.
Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said, as far as he knows, the city doesn’t stand to lose any major grants due to the sequester.
“I’m more concerned about the general impact and the overall economic slowdown,” he said.
The threat of nationwide airport delays, he said, should be a major concern to a local tourism industry that depends largely on guests who fly in. Even if the impact of furloughed TSA screeners and air traffic controllers doesn’t end up being terribly inconvenient, it would likely scare off people from booking air travel to destinations like Aspen, Ireland theorized.
“If people hesitate to fly because they think it’ll be bad, that’s just as harmful for us as it actually being bad,” he said.
Colorado congressmen have expressed frustration about the uncertainty of the sequester’s impacts.
“We’ve reached out to federal agencies for more information on the cuts, but many of the details are still emerging as the agencies scramble to implement it,” said Adam Bozzi, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s communication’s director. “That’s part of the frustration this whole mess is causing. The sequester is not good policy and will be bad for Colorado’s economy in many areas, including tourism and recreation.”
Rep. Scott Tipton, who represents Aspen and western Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, remains a vocal supporter of cutting government spending. But, in a statement Friday, he said the arbitrary sequester cuts, and the uncertainty they’ve created, are bad policy.
“While reducing federal spending is a good thing — and drastically needed given our nation’s $16.5 trillion debt and trillion dollar deficit spending — it could have been done more strategically, and in a way that would have prevented the speculation and uncertainty created by sequestration. ... Ultimately, the uncertainty created by sequestration was avoidable.”
Tipton blamed the Senate for not adopting two House-passed budget reform measures and the president for not presenting an alternative solution to sequestration.
Sen. Mark Udall on Thursday announced he would introduce bipartisan legislation with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would allow individual federal departments to propose more strategic cuts than the automatic ones imposed by the sequester.
“Blunt, shortsighted budget cuts are not the responsible way to reduce the deficit,” Udall said in a press release.
Other sequester cuts to federal funding in Colorado likely to trickle down to Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley include $8.4 million for public education, $2 million for clean air and water quality, and $1.2 million in fish and wildlife protection.