National forest budgets battered
By JOEL CONNELLY
Struggling to recover from big fall floods in 2003 and 2006 that washed away miles of paths and access roads, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has received a figure for this year's trail maintenance budget: It is reportedly $15,000.
The budget comes to about 3 percent of the estimated work needed on just one popular trail -- the Big Four Ice Caves -- where a bridge is broken in three places.
"If this were someone's annual budget, it would rank a thousand-plus below the federal poverty level for a family of three," said Peter Jackson, whose father, Sen. Henry Jackson, preserved many wild places in the national forest.
Just this week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to designate a 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness, in the Baker-Snoqualmie north of the Stevens Pass highway. Our lawmakers spoke of rushing rivers and wild peaks within two hours' access of 2.4 million people.
The hyperbole stops at the paymaster's office.
Damage to Mount Rainier National Park in last fall's flood is a nationwide story. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., has found $36 million to pay for repairs.
"National parks are icons, but national forests are our backyards," said Jay Satz of the Student Conservation Association.
Mount Rainier National Park welcomes an estimated 1.8 million visitors each year. The 1.7 million-acre Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest -- more than five times the size of the park -- draws 5.4 million people. It has 33 campgrounds, 2,600 miles of roads and 1,500 miles of trails.
Several premier Rainier-area trails, such as Summit Lake, are in the Baker-Snoqualmie. The popular route into Grand Park, one of the park's wonderlands, begins in the national forest.
In recent years, volunteer labor has shouldered upkeep of trails in the Baker-Snoqualmie. User fees, levied at campgrounds and paid by those who park at trailheads, pay for maintenance.
The Washington Trails Association is in the field even as the winter snowpack has barely begun to melt. The Student Conservation Association will put crews in the Cascades and Olympic backcountry this summer.
Still, there is a limit to what volunteers can do, particularly when materials are needed.
"I have a feeling many hikers do not understand the full extent of the degree to which trail conditions and access have deteriorated, particularly on the Darrington District, which is still trying to recover from the 2003 floods: $2.7 million worth of damage remains unfunded and unaddressed," said Elizabeth Lunney, executive director of the Washington Trails Association.
How to get attention to the problem?
A worthy suggestion is to erect stocks outside the Darrington Ranger Station, into which would be placed Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversees the Forest Service.
Arriving to pay for their permits, recreationists could pelt Mr. Rey with cabbages. On the way home, they could ply him with pictures of the washed-out White Chuck River road.
Or we could send Mr. Rey forth for a day in the backcountry with a copy of The Mountaineers' trusty "101 Hikes" book.
He could try the scenic, easy Tonga Ridge trail, only to find that a road washout has turned it into a multiday expedition.
Or we could send Mr. Rey up to gorgeous meadows and the Green Mountain lookout. Oops, another washout. Or there's the popular Foss River trail up to Big Heart Lake. Only it was made impassable by last fall's storm.
A fish rots from the head. And, floods withstanding, that's what's happening with access to America's public lands.
The total staffing of the U.S. Forest Service has been halved in the last decade. The Bush administration proposes to cut "Smokey Bear's" budget by $64.3 million in the next fiscal year, and cut an additional 2,100 jobs.
So, you say, belt-tightening is needed when the Bushies are pouring $100 billion into the Iraq rat hole. The Forest Service can take a 1.8 percent budget cut. Read the not-so-fine print. The administration is proposing to spend $911 million for fire suppression, up from $741 million in the past year. An additional $292 million is earmarked for "hazardous materials removal."
By contrast, the Forest Service's recreation budget is being slashed by 11 percent, to $231 million. Capital improvement and maintenance are taking an 11 percent hit, to $66.4 million.
The government's highest-profile land management agency, the National Park Service, is to receive more money.
Other agencies, which manage far more land, are getting the shaft. A total of 225 jobs at national wildlife refuges were cut between 2004 and 2006. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will eliminate 248 more jobs in the next two years, under administration budget proposals.
It's a crying, bloody, inexcusable shame.
A big share of the roads, trails and campgrounds in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest were built during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Even when buttressed by fees and volunteers, the federal government refuses to keep up access to America's natural heritage in times of prosperity.
"To develop a visceral love for the land, we need to be connected directly to wild places," said Peter Jackson.
Or, in Satz's place-specific words, "I want to take my son to Green Mountain. He deserves the same access that I had. Magical places that don't take multiple days are disappearing."
Hyak Ski and Snowboard Adventure
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