For sale: Your local ranger station?

Budget cuts and forest thinning force agency to trim down

 

Sharp budget cuts mean that the U.S. Forest Service faces some hard choices this year, its 100th anniversary. Several offices and compounds that bustled decades ago, during the logging heyday, are now on the auction block. The Bush administration wants to sell off more facilities, and has also begun reviewing recreation sites, such as campgrounds and trailheads, that the agency can no longer afford to maintain.

As a result, your favorite national forest campsite could soon be closed, and the ranger station down the road may show up for sale on the Internet.

The public may not notice sales of scattered ranger housing, offices and warehouses around the West. The number of buildings "made sense 40 years ago, but it doesn’t make sense today," says Richard Sowa, director of engineering for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region. "We just can’t afford to keep up everything we have."

Forest Service staff in the Northwest has dropped by almost half since 1990. The timber program has been hit the hardest, but staffing cuts have bled into other programs, too. Now, the region has marked for possible sale 51 sites with nearly 400 buildings, including offices, housing and warehouses. Selling excess buildings nationwide would raise an estimated $45 million in fiscal 2006 to help pay for the upkeep of remaining buildings, says Hank Kashdan, Forest Service budget chief.

The cuts will reach beyond the agency’s moribund timber infrastructure, however, and into its bustling recreation spots, even as it counted more than 205 million visits in 2003. In its 2006 budget proposal, the Bush administration laid out plans to cut money for forest recreation nationally by at least 4 percent, from $335 million last year to $321 million, not including upkeep of facilities. Forest officials say the cut is compounded by costs, such as salaries and utilities, that rise each year.

None of the 16,000 campgrounds, boat ramps, picnic areas and other recreation sites nationwide will be sold. But the Bush administration has directed all national forests to systematically rate those sites by 2007. The lowest-ranking sites may be forced to shut down, trim their seasons, or slash services such as garbage collection. These cutbacks would help bring spending in line with budgets dropping by millions of dollars a year.

Few forests have completed the review, so it’s unclear how it will affect many sites. But the erosion of the Forest Service budget, despite added recreation fees imposed in recent years, suggests the impact could be dramatic.

Oregon’s Deschutes and Winema national forests started the assessments last year. They weighed costs — such as cleaning bathrooms and repairing picnic tables and water systems — against the money they get for maintenance. "If we can’t do all that to standard, we have to shut them down," says Rich Kehr of the Winema National Forest in Klamath Falls. "There’s a significant number of sites we are considering closing."

Much of the money that the agency does receive is earmarked for President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative, a push to thin flammable Western forests. "Trade-offs were made to keep the priority on hazardous fuels," says Kashdan. "The budget is tight, and we had to make tough calls and trade-offs to keep the priority on other programs."

The studies represent another move by the Bush administration to make land-management agencies function more like businesses. Currently, the Forest Service is allowed to sell as many as 10 properties each year. The administration has asked Congress to remove that cap, as well as to require programs within the Forest Service to begin paying to maintain their office space. That change is meant to encourage the programs to eliminate costly unneeded space.

But some critics are suspicious of the administration’s motives. They see the recent moves as a way to sell off valuable public property, and turn over more land-management duties to private contractors. Sites run by commercial concessionaires under contract with the government won’t face cutbacks.

Most of the properties potentially for sale lie outside national forest boundaries, but not all. One of the more valuable is a Washington ranger district complex covering about 35 acres on the south side of Lake Wenatchee in the Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests. The agency has already listed for sale a ranger station in Sedona, Ariz., and about 90 acres of land around Hungry Horse, Mont., currently owned by the Flathead National Forest.

"They will close those sites the public has always enjoyed because they are not profitable," says Scott Silver of the Bend, Ore.-based group Wild Wilderness. "It’s the complete perversion of the meaning of public lands."

The author writes for the Oregonian.