Two weeks in the West

Forests battered by budget cuts

  • Local governments would pay more of the costs of fighting fires in the wildland-urban interface, if a USDA proposal goes forward

    UTAH DIVISION OF FORESTRY, FIRE AND STATE LANDS
  • US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

  “They’re not vermin, they’re not predators to be shot on sight, and they’re not spiritual beings.”
—Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator for Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, on Montana’s plan to manage its approximately 300 wolves once the gray wolf is removed from the endangered species list.

 

With President Bush hoping to up the Pentagon budget by almost $25 billion without raising taxes, something’s gotta give somewhere. It looks as if the nation’s forests will be one of the big losers.

As he bid adieu in January to the agency he’s headed for the past six years, retiring Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth delivered some grim news: The Forest Service must cut its costs by 25 percent over the next three years. In a memo on “Forest Service Realignment,” Bosworth says that the agency will “leverage attrition” to cut costs, and “voluntary transfers, directed reassignments, and the use of other human resource tools will be necessary.”

In Montana, the Helena National Forest has already responded to Bosworth’s memo by “realigning” the jobs of some 85 employees; about half will have to reapply for their old jobs, and a handful will lose their jobs altogether.

Downsizing isn’t just for employees. Campgrounds and other recreational facilities could also get the ax as part of the agency’s Recreational Site Facility Master Planning process. Facilities that aren’t financially sustainable or fail to meet other criteria could be closed. Critics have bashed the process, in part because of a lack of opportunity for public involvement. So Bosworth, as one of his final acts in office, announced in January that the process will be changed to consider citizen input.

The feds also stand to save hundreds of millions of dollars by not renewing a program that compensates state and local governments for lost timber money. Before the Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act expired last year, the Bush administration proposed keeping it alive by selling off public land. That notion was shot down (though revived in the administration’s latest budget proposal). Now, the program’s future is in doubt, and state, county and school budgets will feel the pain — Oregon, for example, receives $149 million per year from the program. Western congressmen are scrambling for funding, but have so far had no luck. County governments in timber states are preparing for the worst, warning that without the funding, some 15,000 public employees could lose their jobs.

Local governments will take another hit if the Agriculture Department’s Inspector General Phyllis Fong gets her way. In 2006, the Forest Service spent nearly $2 billion — or 40 percent of its total budget — fighting wildfires. A big chunk of that was spent protecting homes built in or at the edge of the woods. Since local governments regulate development, they should be the ones paying for increased fire fighting costs in the “wildland-urban interface,” Fong says. Fong’s suggestion hasn’t led to any concrete proposals, and the Forest Service is asking for a 23 percent increase in its firefighting budget for 2008.

The feds can cover some costs by charging folks to use public lands. In January, a ruling by District Court Judge John Roll confirmed the government’s authority to charge fees for parking and hiking on public land. Roll’s rule overturned a September decision by federal Magistrate Charles Pyle, which let Chris Wallace, of Tucson, Ariz., off the hook for refusing to pay to hike at nearby Mount Lemmon recreation area. Wallace could still appeal Roll’s ruling.

Just about everyone’s taking a hit from these budget cuts, it seems. Except ranchers, that is. Grazing fees on public land will drop by 13 percent this year.

Also in news of the West …

A wilder, freer Klamath may turn out to be more than just some hippie pipe dream, thanks to a recent Bush administration order. In late January, the feds told PacifiCorp, the owner of four hydroelectric dams on the river, to add salmon bypass routes to the dams. But the estimated $300 million price tag could make it cheaper for PacifiCorp to just knock the dams down and replace the power with other sources. If that happened, biologists say, it could restore the Klamath’s salmon run, once the third largest in the West. Poor water quality, disease and low river flows have reduced salmon numbers to less than 5 percent of their historical abundance.

 

ET come West

85: Alien bodies allegedly discovered in the United States between 1947 and 1989, ALIENSTHETRUTH.COM

68: Percent of those bodies found in the West (New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Montana), ALIENSTHETRUTH.COM

30: Percent of the bodies discovered in New Mexico, ALIENSTHETRUTH.COM

44: Reported alien abductions nationwide, IWASABDUCTED.COM

3: UFO festivals in the West International UFO, MUSEUM AND RESEARCH CENTER

1,300: Unidentified aerial phenomena sightings by pilots and crews from 1916 to 2000, UFOEVIDENCE.ORG

12,579: UFO sightings in the West from the 1940s to 2006, NATL. UFO REPORTING CENTER

40: Percent of those sightings in California, NATL. UFO REPORTING CENTER

122: UFO sightings in Wyoming, NATL. UFO REPORTING CENTER

2,413: UFO sightings in Washington, NATL. UFO REPORTING CENTER

206-722-3000: UFO Report Hotline. Call only if the sighting has been within a week; otherwise, submit your report online or by mail. NATL. UFO REPORTING CENTER

—Research by Michelle Blank