Part of ongoing reporting on Wyoming’s federal lands, their plight, control and management — Ed.
Bridger-Teton National Forest receptionist Dorothy Neckels’ new office exudes a welcoming warmth with maps, displays, brochures and posters greeting visitors to her 3.4-million-acre reserve.
To reach her office, however, visitors must traverse a crumbling sidewalk past the abandoned A-frame-style Bridger-Teton headquarters building. Workers just filled in the 10-foot puddle at the door to Neckels’ single-wide trailer. As inviting as her reception might be inside, the route to Neckels’ desk is a discordant welcoming mat to one of the country’s top recreational forests.
Demand for access to the mountains, hills, and 3,000 miles of trails and roads on the Bridger-Teton keeps increasing, Forest Supervisor Tricia O’Connor said. “We’ve never had our campgrounds full like this year at the north end of forest,” she said. Adjacent Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks just had record-breaking seasons, and the Bridger-Teton felt the surge.
But as the number of visitors increases, does her budget grow too? “Absolutely not,” O’Connor said. “It’s doing the opposite.” Since 2009 the Bridger-Teton budget has been cut 28 percent to $17.3 million. The recreation budget is down 28 percent and the road account 52 percent during the same time.
To some, the erosion is the result of policies that target land-management agencies to undermine local support and drive a states’-rights agenda. Others disagree, or point to clunky congressional budget restrictions, particularly the way the Forest Service must cut fall programs to pay for firefighting in big fire years. In either case, many federal lands and the programs supporting them are on life-support, and the Bridger-Teton is a showcase example.
Facilities, personnel, programs affected by Forest Service neglect
The Bridger-Teton plight is deeper than the crumbling infrastructure that’s the face of the forest today. The effect of a shrinking budget also permeates staff and programs. For example, the recreation budget for the Bridger-Teton was $1.9 million in 2009, O’Connor said. For FY ‘15 it was $1.5 million.
“The cost of business — everything is going up,” O’Connor said. Had her recreation account seen a federal cost-of-living adjustment during the last six years, it would be funded with $2.1 million today, according to calculations made by WyoFile. That means recreation has been shortchanged by 29 percent since 2009.
Trails funding also has gone down, some 37 percent — from $800,000 to $500,000. “The people out there doing the service, they’re just not there any more,” O’Connor said. The Bridger-Teton has only two recreational rangers. “For the capacity of the forest, that is ridiculous.”
“We know we have to manage recreation, mitigate impacts,” O’Connor said. “We don’t have the capacity to do that. We see more and more potential for conflict. I only see that increasing.”
In addition to shrinking recreation and trails funding, the Forest Service “borrowed” $300,000 from the Bridger-Teton this fall to pay for firefighting nationwide, cancelling some projects and work in western Wyoming. The result makes forest users lose faith in, even turn against, federal agencies. That’s according to a federal critique of Forest Service firefighting funding published in September that documented cuts on the Bridger-Teton.
“With reduced capacity, the rate of decay of Forest Service infrastructure accelerates, public sentiment turns more and more against the agency and a negative cycle of failure to meet existing and new demands becomes established,” the critique said.
When the forest held a meeting this fall to discuss projects to decommission roads that can’t be maintained, “the magnitude of outrage expressed by stakeholders … was wide-ranging and filled with expressions of distrust and conspiracy theory about the true motivations of the Forest Service,” the supplement said. “Local user groups and other stakeholders don’t see the connection between declining budgets and the increasing demand to divert funds for fire suppression….”
The effect of such strains on federal workers diminishes recruitment, morale and effectiveness, some say. In Pinedale, retired Forest Service employee Dave Hohl, who worked in the forest’s Bridger Wilderness decades ago, said some people in his community grumble about a less-engaged federal workforce.
“It could very well be the result of reduced funding and lack of empowerment of people on the job, people looking over your back,” he said. “It seems things are held much closer in Washington now. Local offices don’t have nearly as much to say about what goes on. That could very well harken back to the (budget) strangulation and more political control over management.”
Critics of the federal government long ago singled out employees themselves for disparagement, some contend. From the National Rifle Association’s description of federal law enforcement as “jack-booted thugs” to the Cliven Bundy standoff. “Federal employees get vilified all the time,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “There was tremendous esprit de corps,” not long ago, he said of agencies like the Forest Service. “Now it’s much harder to get good people to want those jobs.”
It is also increasingly harder to lure prospective executives to the upper echelons of government agencies, an advocacy group for those workers says. The Senior Executives Association reported last week that low rewards and harsh public criticism, among other things, rasp at the ranks. “[P]ay stagnation, reduced awards and recognition, work-life stresses and the constant pillorying of career senior executives and professionals by Congress and the media are likely taking a toll,” the 44-page report says.
If federal workers are losing their effectiveness, new user groups across the forest are growing. ATVers and mountain bikers, whose activities demand travel plans and routes, are among those flocking to the woods. Paddlers, too. There were 300,000 people on the Snake River alone last summer, O’Connor said. Unlike some national forests, winter on the Bridger-Teton is robust for tourism, with skiers carving up Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and nearby backcountry bowls. “Those kind of uses are not going down,” O’Connor said.
Collaborative programs die on the vine
Diminishing funds affect programs, too. At a district work center at Bryan Flats near Hoback Junction, tent platforms have rotted, toilets and showers don’t work, and the water is not potable. That prevents hosting a summer workforce of employees and volunteers in Jackson Hole where rent is expensive, if you can even find an apartment.
The Bridger-Teton had planned to buy a snowmobile for winter patrols, but scrapped that purchase after this fall’s “fire borrowing” drained the account. As a result, recreation patrols and endangered species surveys will be reduced. Efforts to curb unauthorized off-trail use that affects winter wildlife habitat will suffer. Managers try to out-fox the system. “We all try to spend the money before August,” O”Connor said.
The Bridger-Teton engages partners to help it complete work it traditionally has done itself. Volunteers helped create a new mountain bike trail near Jackson this summer. The Wyoming Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources prints ORV maps and distributes them for free to help keep motorists abreast of routes and rules.
“Does it meet all the needs?” O’Connor asked of the partnerships. “No.”
Even as the Bridger-Teton collaborates, a project can be cancelled when the Forest Service withdraws because of late-season “fire borrowing.” That happened this fall on an invasive weed eradication effort with Teton County that was cancelled when money was siphoned off to pay for firefighting elsewhere in the country.
“It’s disheartening,” O’Connor said of the effect on employees. “They spend a lot of energy, then they can’t do it.” Partners, too, take note. They ask themselves, “Do we want to work with you anymore?” she said.
Campgrounds, offices wear down and crumble
Supervisor O’Connor, who took the reins in February, agrees the Bridger-Teton is a poster child for U.S. Forest Service problems. In addition to postponing projects and not hiring needed personnel, capital improvements can’t be made and campground infrastructure is eroding. “Nationally, the infrastructure’s crumbling,” she said. “That money has all but dried up.”
The Bridger-Teton years ago sought money to rebuild its headquarters. “We were told it doesn’t exist any more,” O’Connor said. Now the agency is selling part of its property on Jackson’s premiere North Cache Drive to fund a new building. The problem is emblematic of the agency nationwide, according to a report the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the Forest Service’s mother agency — distributed this summer.
The Agriculture Department published the 16-page report just after Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Tom Tidwell visited the Bridger-Teton to make the case for better funding. Titled, The rising cost of fire operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work, it pins the latest woes on increasing firefighting costs and a broken fire-funding model.
More than half the agency’s 23,100 administration and research buildings need improvement, and about 41 percent are “in poor condition needing major repairs or renovation,” the report says. The Forest Service has $5.1 billion in deferred maintenance.
“Because of a lack of funding, the Forest Service has lost opportunities for new office construction to replace administrative facilities at the end of their design life, resulting in office closure and moves into leased facilities,” the report says.
Tidwell saw the Bridger-Teton’s problems last summer, O”Connor said. “If he could have written me a check, I think he would have,” she said.
Public recreation sites also suffer. “The overall effect is an increase in public health and safety concerns, and liability for the federal government,” the report says. “The only action national forests can take to reduce the government liability is to close recreation facilities, thereby impacting the outdoor recreation opportunities that drive many rural tourism economies.”
An example is the 60-year-old bridge over Crystal Creek in the Gros Ventre River drainage, which is at “a point of eminent failure.” Its loss would cut off a dirt road that reaches trailheads to thousands of acres. Such problems are a drain on the country’s $646 billion outdoor recreation industry. The “fire borrowings” remain “extremely problematic as they disrupt seasonal work, frustrate partners, and delay vital work,” the report said.
Is Congress really listening?
The unsustainable fire funding framework requires the Forest Service cover a budgeted amount for fires each year. That amount is based on a rolling 10-year average and keeps increasing with climate change and more homes built near the “wildland-urban interface.” The model “has steadily consumed an ever increasing portion of the agency’s appropriated budget,” the report says, to the point firefighting consumed more than half the Forest Service budget this year.
Instead, Congress should treat the top 2 percent of fires — the largest — as genuine emergencies that are funded through a disaster account, the Department of Agriculture proposes. Wyoming’s two GOP senators recently indicated they would consider some kind of change.
In August, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi launched a reform dialog along with 10 colleagues, including four Democrats and Wyoming’s U.S. Sen. John Barrasso. “Congress needs to find a fiscally responsible solution to wildfire funding and fire borrowing,” Enzi said in a statement.
Also, on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) hosts a hearing on wildfires and their threats to budgets and resources. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry will hear testimony from loggers, grouse and trout advocates, and representatives of federal employees and a conservation district.
But some new funding ideas could harm the agency as well. O’Connor is heavily dependent on about $800,000 she gets every year from campgrounds, outfitter-and-guide permits and other recreation fees. There have been recent proposals to reduce some of those revenue streams, but Congress didn’t enact the changes.
“This funding comes straight back to the Forest and has been a huge help to us since our budget has declined,” O’Connor said. “Without that funding source, as well as partners, we would likely not be maintaining the level of service that we do.”
Meanwhile the Bridger-Teton National Forest supervisor doesn’t have to suffer the ignominy of leading one of the top recreational forests from a single-wide trailer. Her office is in a triple-wide. But she doesn’t have time to be red-faced.
“I’m too practical to be embarrassed,” she said. “We have a trajectory,” for constructing a new office that will result in “something we can be proud of.”
O’Connor wants a different future, though. “I don’t want to be in the place where we sell land,” she said. Recreation needs to have a unified constituency to lobby for changes. There are motor users, wilderness users, and others. “They haven’t been able to come with a united front,” she said.
Until then, Congress has other work.
“There are so many big issues they’re dealing with,” O’Connor said. And they’ve sent out a message; “You guys have got to prioritize your own dilemmas.”