Ahhh…the great outdoors. Marshmallows toasting over an open fire. Ghost stories being told, songs being sung, and families having one heck of kumbaya time. Famed artist Norman Rockwell depicted this classic American lifestyle on canvas. But Norm is long gone and some of his masterpiece’s subjects may also soon be if Congress doesn’t wake up. And soon.
America’s national forests are in disarray. In the very popular and mountainous Eagle County, Colorado, which includes Vail, camping, fishing, skiing, and other outdoor activities are the lifeblood of the communities within its borders. The U.S. Forest Service came a-knocking a few years back to break the news that the county needed to shut down all of their national campsites because their department was underfunded and understaffed. The feds had to trim the fat.
To keep the revenue flowing, Eagle County ended up paying the federal park employees out of their own pocket to keep the campsites open. It was a tremendous amount of money but all in all, they still came out ahead.
Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney described the situation in the most logical of terms. “It has rubbed some within the community the wrong way because it’s a federal property and they should manage it with federal money, But if that money is not allocated then they manage it by closing. They don’t have the people.”
Colorado’s ski areas lease the land they are on from the federal government, and it isn’t at a discounted rate. It adds up to roughly $25 million a year being handed over to the federal treasury to be used for whatever purposes they deem viable. Forest management is not one of those purposes. The foresty department sees little return on the investment, which in turn is crushing the communities within their grasp.
Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula has yet to receive an answer for his easy question. “Why is that money being generated here and then taken to Washington and thrown into the treasury instead of being allocated for things that are needed in the forests?”
Republican and Democrat Coloradans in Congress have been joining forces on this one issue for several years but everything they’ve ever proposed has been shot down by their disinterested constituents who couldn’t care less. “That’s their problem.” Nothing they’ve tried has ever reached the desk of any sitting president, red or blue.
Colorados latest effort includes a strong “fighting words” endorsement from both of their U.S. senators. The bill also has the unyielding support of state representatives (R) Lauren Boebart, and (D) Joe Neguse, both hailing from Colorado’s high country wherein lies the center of the state’s activity.
Neguse said the arrangement with the slumlord feds is “outrageous.” The U.S. Forest Service “has been unable or unwilling to invest the necessary resources to do the work they are obligated to do under federal law.”
Eagle Counties White River National Forest also runs through nine other counties in northwest Colorado, home to over a dozen popular ski areas. In 2008, their portion of it, which includes its Eagle-Holy Cross ranger district, had seven employees who ran things like a well-oiled machine.
Though the number of visitors to the area has only increased since that time, these days it’s up to one lone employee to issue permits, interact with visitors, maintain the facilities, and yadda, yadda, yadda. The turnover rate of rangers is horrendous. The impossible task is not what they signed for.
Jon Stavney, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, put it as simply as he could by saying, “That’s a lot of forest for one guy. You wouldn’t run a sheriff’s department that way.” The council sent a warning letter to Congress in 2018 as a heads up, but the letter was never seen again.
Lack of adequate federal funding presents another grave issue. There isn’t enough money to go around for upgrades which pose serious safety concerns. This issue not only affects Colorado. Nationwide there are 122 ski areas sitting on federally owned land that is far from being properly maintained.
Any changes made to any slope areas, be they avalanche or impassable infrastructure for emergency vehicles related, must receive a seal of approval from the U.S. Forest Service. First, they must conduct an intensive study of the environmental impact such changes would have on the environment versus the human toll it could cost by not fixing the problem.
And they move at a snail’s pace. The chief operating officer of the Arapahoe Basin, Alan Henceroth, said the years of delay equates to one thing. “Ski areas are slow to upgrade critical infrastructure.” He told this to a panel of Congress amid their snores.
You might want to reconsider your vacation plans if federally owned land in Colorado, or anywhere for that matter, was where you were planning on pitching a tent or waxing up your skis. At least until this mess gets sorting out. That’s if it ever does.
Rockwell must be rolling in his grave. Bless his heart…