Budget cuts threaten forests’ roads, hunting, fishing

Anshu Siripurapu
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The roads to the national forests could get bumpier. Trails could get messier. Maintenance on bridges, dams and recreation sites could become tougher under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1.

The White House is seeking only about $100 million in funding for capital improvement and maintenance by the National Forest Service, down from $363 million this year.

That 73 percent cut could have a huge impact on recreation, according to Rebecca Turner, senior director of programs and policy for American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Turner said roads are used to access the trails leading to “majestic overlooks,” and lakes and rivers in the forests. She said the budget cuts would also lead to campsites and facilities not being maintained.

Turner said that if the Forest Service is unable to maintain safe roads, boat launches and campgrounds, they’re likely to close.

“When you can’t access the forests, then it’s much harder to enjoy them,” she said.

John Haynes, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said it would be “premature” to comment on before Congress approves a budget.

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The Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, manages the 154 national forests around the country, covering more than 180 million acres. Millions of people visit the forests every year.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the agency will focus on maintaining “staff and expertise” in anticipation of Trump’s infrastructure plan, few details of which were outlined in the budget proposal.

“When the infrastructure plan moves forward, then we’ll be well-positioned to be able to implement projects,” Tidwell told senators at a hearing on the forest service budget.

But Tidwell said later that the administration has not made it clear when or if that money will come.

“If additional funds are not made available through the infrastructure plan, or additional opportunities, then the budget request for roads and trails and infrastructure would make it very challenging, more challenging, for us to carry out our program of work,” Tidwell said.

Coalter Baker of the Office of Management and Budget said there were no details on the infrastructure plan beyond the short fact sheet included in the budget, which does not mention the Forest Service.

“It’s nice to hope, but until we see a draft let alone a bill … we’re hoping for something that we don’t know would exist,” Turner said.

Both Republicans and Democrats have raised concerns.

“How do we sustain the $10 billion generated by visitors to our national forests and the 143,000 jobs they create if we don’t have roads to access the forest, or safe and accessible facilities or hiking trails for visitors to use once they are there,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said at a Senate hearing.

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, also raised concerns about the cut’s effect on roads, noting that cuts could make it tougher for timber purchasers to access the forests.

H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow on environmental policy at the conservative Heartland Institute in Illinois, said the budget cuts are necessary to control spending.

He said since cuts to politically popular programs such as defense or entitlements like Medicare are unlikely, agencies like the Forest service will have to see their budgets squeezed.

“(Budget cuts) have to come and they have to be steep,” he said. “You can’t fiddle around the edges.”

Burnett said the government should consider selling some of its land to private companies to raise money and to reduce the amount of forest it has to manage.

“There is no reason the federal government needs to own 100 million acres of forest,” he said.