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Forest Service slashes hit home

Officials could start charging for Hermosa and Molas campgrounds
A bus winds along U.S. Highway 550 between Coal Bank Pass and Molas Pass as fall colors begin to show along the mountainsides of the San Juan National Forest in 2012. U.S. Forest Service budget cuts may force local officials to evaluate local recreation amenities.

Cuts to the San Juan National Forest budget are forcing officials to consider major changes to campgrounds, trails and other recreation sites.

The Forest Service has seen the recreation budget for the San Juan National Forest continuously decline since 2006 when it was $2.5 million. Local Forest Service officials expect it will hit $1.7 million in 2018, said Brian White, the recreation staff leader for the San Juan National Forest.

Campground closures, trail closures, new campground fees and changes to services in the forest likely will be necessary to make workloads manageable, he said.

The San Juan National Forest includes 127 developed recreation sites and about 1,800 miles of trails. There also is about $3.6 million in deferred maintenance needs, White said.

To stay within budget, the Forest Service reduced its full-time staff from 17 to 11 people in 2014, in part, to maintain funds to hire seasonal staff.

“We have reduced our workforce, and now we have to look at the workload on the ground,” forest supervisor Kara Chadwick said at a public meeting Wednesday at the Durango Public Library.

The Columbine Ranger District in La Plata and San Juan counties likely will face the most change because it has the most amenities, said Jed Botsford, the recreation staff officer for the district.

For example, the Forest Service may have to start charging for Lower Hermosa and Little Molas campgrounds because of their popularity, said Matt Janowiak, Columbine District Ranger.

“We have to look at what we can do with the money we’re getting,” he said.

In other cases, the Forest Service may look at much smaller cost-saving changes, such as closing hand-pump wells. Not all changes will be reductions. With the aging population, an increased interest in RV camping has led officials to explore providing more in that area, White said.

In the Dolores Ranger District, which encompasses land in Montezuma, Dolores and San Miguel counties, some campgrounds face an occupancy rate of about 20 percent during the camping season, and they may be considered for closure, said Tom Rice, the recreation staff officer for the Dolores Ranger District.

Ferris Campground, at the edge of the district, may be one possible candidate.

The Forest Service will release a draft plan for changes over the summer that will be publicly available. The final plan is scheduled to be finished in January.

But any changes, such as a campground closure, would have to go through a separate National Environmental Policy Act review to make sure they will not have adverse affects on the community, the environment or historical structures, Rice said. This process would include public input.

mshinn@durangoherald.com

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