Budget cuts leave recreation areas relying on outside help
Recreation budgets are shrinking so fast, federal agencies are struggling to provide basic services such as garbage removal, road maintenance and trail clearing on popular public lands in the Inland Northwest.
• The Bureau of Land Management says it doesn’t have money to test and turn on the water system this summer at a popular Mineral Ridge and Beauty Bay recreation sites on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
• Of the 31,836 miles of national forest roads in Montana, just 4,495 miles – 14 percent – were maintained in 2011.
• Trash pickup and maintenance is less frequent, especially at secondary federal sites.
• Trail and road crews have been reduced across the region and officials predict more cuts.
“We’re not filling two recreation staff positions this year,” said Andy Boggs, Coeur d’Alene National Forest trails coordinator. “The outside funding I’ve had for a youth crew is drying up. I’m retiring soon and I’m not sure they’ll be able to fill my position.”
The Umatilla National Forest’s 365,901-acre Pomeroy Ranger District has a crew of three seasonal employees and a full-time staffer to maintain 360 miles of managed trails in the Blue Mountains. That includes 276 trail miles in the 177,412-acre Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, where use of motorized equipment such as chain saws is prohibited.
“Our crew of college students is young, fit and strong and you can’t believe what they can do in a day,” said Rich Martin, the district’s veteran trail maintenance coordinator.
“But a lot of trails still would not be logged out if it weren’t for the help from Back Country Horsemen, hunters and other groups.”
The call from federal managers for volunteers is almost desperate.
“User groups like the motorized riders and Back Country Horsemen often carry saws and log out trails as they go,” said Boggs, who manages a crew of four facilities staffers and five for trails. “The Spokane Mountaineers have adopted trails and I count on them to keep them open.
“These groups are getting a lot of work done and should get a lot of the credit.”
Sequestration prompted by the inaction of Congress on federal budget bills varies in its impact depending on the agency.
“Sequestration hit us about midway through the fiscal year, resulting in a 7.4 percent reduction in overall district budget,” said Suzanne Endsley, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Coeur d’Alene.
“We have 50-55 employees between here and the Cottonwood office (on the Salmon River) and we have had to absorb a cut of nearly a half a million dollars in less than six months.
“It hit us pretty hard at the beginning of our field season,” she said, noting that hiring has been reduced for seasonal employees who do recreation maintenance and forest thinning to reduce fire danger.
“In recreation, our staff positions were cut from 8 to 3.5,” she said.
Popular Coeur d’Alene boat access sites will be priorities this summer while maintenance at smaller recreation areas will be stretched from weekly to monthly or bimonthly, she said.
BLM hired only one seasonal worker to patrol the launches and popular rafting and fishing waters of the lower Salmon River from Grangeville to Riggins this summer.
River users are going to have to step up, enforce rules and pick up after each other, “because we don’t have the people to do the job,” Endsley said.
“We don’t even have the funding to formally bring on volunteers because rules say we have to pay them $20 a day for expenses,” she said.
“If something is vandalized and damaged, like the chronic problems we have with the Pine Bar outhouse on the lower Salmon, we’d likely have to close it because we don’t have money to fix it.”
BLM’s Spokane District is similarly impacted. No portable toilets are available for campers, hikers and equestrians at Lakeview Ranch recreation area this year. Funding is reduced for everything from signs and equipment to hiring local youth crews that typically help with recreation site and trail maintenance, said district spokesman Robert S. Clair.
The BLM’s Migratory Bird Day fair and activities were organized by the Coeur d’Alene Audubon Society this spring, but the agency-sponsored summer youth day camps have been canceled.
“More than 60 kids won’t be able get that window into environmental education this year,” Endsley said. “Some of these kids are exploring natural resources as a career; many of them have filled our needs for summer help. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
Idaho Panhandle National Forests already were cutting into the meat of their operations before this year, said Jason Kirchner, public affairs officer. “There’s no fat,” he said. “Last year to this year, we reduced spending by about 5 percent overall across the forest.”
Staff has decreased from 286 permanent and 90 temporary employees in 2008 to 250 permanent and 80 temporary jobs in 2012.
“Projections call for another 15 percent reduction by 2015,” Kirchner said. “That’s really going to be tough.
“Budget reductions are not a new thing for us. When sequestration hit, we’d already been planning for a 5 percent reduction. We have the basics covered this year, but we don’t have much flexibility to fix unexpected things like landslides on roads or the damage from vandalism or a big weather event.”
Campgrounds are in normal order for the Fourth of July holiday, although several opened later than usual this year, he said.
Staffing is down from a few years ago but about the same as last year, he said: “We really have to prioritize work, getting the legally mandated jobs done first, and make good use of volunteers.”
Enforcement staffing has not changed, although it’s always been lower than desired by the public or the agency, he said.
“We’re going through a variety of internal efforts to cut costs everywhere we can, from facilities down to office supplies,” he said.
Colville National Forest numbers indicate visitors can expect to rough it more often. The recreation budget for everything from campgrounds to trails has declined significantly in recent years and additional cuts of up to 64 percent are expected in the next year, said Franklin Pemberton, public affairs officer.
Budgets for contracting road maintenance, such as brushing, blading and draining, have been decreased 46 percent in the past two years, he said.
“As the amount of funding we have available for road maintenance decreases the state of our road system will deteriorate,” he said. “Users should expect rough, wash-boarded, rutted, brushy, or tree-blocked roads and trails.”
Volunteers and grants from cash-strapped states are a major factor in funding trail work on some federal lands.
“In addition to a staff position, the Forest Service budgeted only $16,888 for recreation on this district,” said Pat Hart, trails coordinator for the Bonners Ferry Ranger District. “That’s basically enough for one seasonal employee, a pickup, a saw and a volunteer.”
But most of the jobs are getting done sooner or later with outside help.
For example, the Idaho State Parks Department has awarded the Bonners district nearly $175,000 in grants for motorized and nonmotorized trail and access projects, Hart said. Idaho and other states dedicate a percentage of gas-tax receipts for recreational trails programs.
“The volunteers help get the work done and their hours qualify as our matching portion for the grants, which is important because we don’t have the money,” she said.
Meantime, the state takes advantage of the Forest Service infrastructure and expertise in fulfilling its obligation for spending the gas-tax recreation money efficiently.
“Over the years I’ve collected and stored gear from various projects, like pulaskis – $70 apiece if you have to buy them – so we can outfit volunteers and get them working,” she said.
Hart has won national awards for her creative ways of tapping volunteer groups including conservation organizations, Back Country Horsemen, senior citizens, local Job Corps groups, Eagle Scouts, summer youth camps and regional Youth Conservation Corps.
Many Forest Service seasonal employees take great pride in their jobs, she said. Some have continued doing the work even when their positions weren’t funded.
“Apparently that’s not uncommon under the budget cuts,” she said, noting the regional forester in Missoula issued a reminder to employees this year that employment rules prohibit them from doing unfunded jobs for free.
“I feel positive this year, because of grants and volunteer program, but I’m worried about the future,” Hart said.
“The Forest Service is really hurting. Even grants are getting harder to find because we’re so focused on basics we’re not building new facilities or adding new trails – the kinds of things most grants are designed to fund.
“There’s no way to write a grant for funds to pump a vault toilet or buy toilet paper,” she said.
“It’s down to the point that we’re spending time thinking how much toilet paper we’ll leave at a campground and how much we’ll have to increase the supplies during huckleberry season.”
Next year the policy could be “bring a roll, leave a roll,” she said with a smile: “I’m not sure whether I’m kidding.”