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Volunteers more essential for cash-strapped White River National Forest

Jun 8, 2015

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams speaks to a crowd gathered for the Aspen Business Luncheon. His agency is increasingly depending on volunteers as it deals with cuts to its budget.
Credit Marci Krivonen

With deep cuts from Washington in recent years, the White River National Forest is looking to free labor. Volunteers stationed at busy spots like the Maroon Bells scenic area, are becoming increasingly essential to the agency. And with summer arriving, officials are recruiting. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.

In ten years the annual operating budget for the White River National Forest has been slashed by $2 million and the agency has reduced employees. Scott Fitzwilliams is Forest Supervisor.

"Things are tough. We all know about the federal budget and how, right now, spending across the board is tough. So we’re dealing with, what are fairly extreme, reductions."

At the same time, the number of visitors to the White River National Forest is growing rapidly. Last year nearly 13 million people visited the forest. That’s 3-plus million more than a decade ago.

"Volunteers have saved our bacon," says Fitzwilliams.

If not for volunteers, he says many roads and trails would either be un-maintained or closed. Free labor equates to millions of dollars worth of savings annually for the agency.

Marcia Johnson is with The Forest Conservancy that recruits and trains volunteers for the White River. The volunteers are a lot like staff with uniforms and jobs such as trail maintenance and visitor education.

"They’re no longer doing the nice little white hat volunteer stuff. They’re out there, boots on the ground, doing the work that the Forest Service is no longer able to do," Johnson says.

The White River projects its expenditures will drop by 3 to 4 percent next year so its reliance on volunteerism will continue. The Forest covers 2.4 million acres from Aspen to Meeker and Vail to Breckenridge. It’s the most visited national forest in the country.