Thursday, February 11, 2016

Breckenridge to host forum on transit solutions

#Breckenridge Colorado

Courtesy of the town of Breckenridge

Summit Daily News Link

Seeking a solution to peak-season gridlock and parking shortages, Breckenridge voters passed an initiative in November to provide long-term funding for parking and transit solutions. Now, citizens will be asked to participate in the process, by reviewing available long-term solutions in a series of meetings over the next few months.
“Once the measure passed, what we heard from the community was, let’s look beyond just the parking structure,” Breckenridge communications director Kim Dykstra said. “We’re not actually going to see money from the lift ticket tax until 2017. This is time for us to study the issue from holistic perspective and come up with long-term solutions.”
With DTJ Design, Inc. and Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates reviewing the town’s previous transportation studies, the two companies presented a variety of options to town council on Tuesday, including improving long-term parking and pedestrian access as potential solutions to reduce congestion.
These concepts will be presented at two public meetings next Thursday, Feb. 18, at 7:30 a.m. or 5 p.m. at the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center.
“This town has been trying to solve the traffic problem for a long time,” Paul Moore, a principal with Nelson\Nygaard said. “The fact is, for communities that are vibrant, thriving and in-demand, congestion is a symptom of success.”
Still, between looking over countless studies, surveys and spending time on the ground, he and DTJ Design president Bill Campie agreed a few solutions might reduce congestion significantly.
Moore explained that congestion is an exponential model, not linear, meaning that as traffic volume increases, the wait worsens significantly. Thankfully, the converse is also true:
“Backing off 10-15 percent of trips will affect more than 10-15 percent of congestion,” he explained. “All we have to do is pick off on some of these trips around the margins to have a really strong impact on congestion on some of these peak days.”
Campie explained the town faced a unique situation, between long-term residents who often use their car to get around town to the grocery store and post office, and an influx of visitors — often driving in from the city. The unusual traffic patterns, and slim pickings with parking, leads many locals to run routine errands at unusual times to avoid the crunch.
“With City Market, that’s where I get my hair cut or get groceries. I can’t do that at times that make sense for me — between four and dinner,” he explained. “It’s a big deal.”
The hunt for parking might be the focal issue of the town’s current transit problems. Not to mention that cars circling around the block hunting for a parking spot create more congestion.
“Skier parking on business lots came up multiple times,” he said.
Looking at employee parking lots, he noted several were parked with skis.
“I didn’t know if we saw anyone who was shopping or an employee,” he added.
The goal, he and Moore explained, was to get visitors to keep their car parked in one place, instead of having them drive around. Even with day skiers, the hope is to get them to park in a place that will allow them to walk around town.
“We know they’re gonna hunt for parking, and they’re gonna try to find their secret parking spot. It’s a time deal,” Campie said. “How do we get the day skier to get up, get out and walk around town?”
A WALKABLE DOWNTOWN
Part of the answer, according to him and Moore, is making the town as a whole more pedestrian friendly. While most lodges are about a 10 minutes’ walk from downtown, Moore explained there were several impediments keeping people from making that connection.
“We don’t have to get everybody out of the car,” he explained. “It’s just making sure people have opportunities and incentives to be less consumptive and more productive.”
The cold weather, lack of clear signage and minimal lighting were three potential impediments that might hold visitors back from walking — rather than driving — downtown.
“Skiers have an incredibly high tolerance for discomfort. They’ll wait to ride buses, they’ll not be able to feel their fingers,” Campie joked. “People want to walk. …
“There’s this whole journey that I think there’s a huge opportunity with room for improvement.”
While Main Street itself is bright, well-kept and easy to navigate, he noted the process of getting there might include walking down dark, slippery slopes, not to mention crossing the highway and parking lots.
“It’s kind of like unwrapping a present that your older brother’s wrapped in duct tape,” he laughed. “You go from the dark to this incredibly well-lit, beautiful, storybook environment.”
The lighting is especially key in the winter, as by the time skiers get off the slopes, it’s likely already dark. A few more streetlights, improved signage and a warm jacket might be enough to get visitors on their feet.
“There are almost easy opportunities for improvement,” Campie added.
With two preliminary public meetings set for this Thursday, he and Moore will look through suggestions from Breckenridge residents and reconvene again for another set of public meetings on April 25. In June, a third meeting will be held to give the community an opportunity to comment on recommended strategies.
“We’ve been putting these plans in motion so we don’t just want to put a Band-Aid on it,” Dykstra said. “People are chomping at the bit to get going. … We really want the community to help us.”
The hope is to have a thorough Parking and Transportation Action Plan for the town in July.
“Parking has been one of our most critical challenges for as long as I can remember,” Breckenridge Mayor John Warner said in a statement. “Now that the funding piece of the puzzle is solid, we urge the community to be a part of creating a holistic, long-term and multi-faceted approach to the traffic and parking problems congesting our town today so that we can continue to have the quality of life that brought us all here in the first place.”
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Iron Springs road realignment project moves toward spring groundbreaking

#Summit County Colorado

Courtesy of the Colorado Department of Transportation

Summit Daily News Link

The State Highway 9 Iron Springs project covering a four-mile stretch between Breckenridge and Frisco is nearly off the ground and running.
Summit County officials met with a packed room in the county courthouse in Breckenridge yesterday morning, Tuesday, Feb. 9, to discuss progress on the re-alignment plan, which has a pricetag of about $22.6 million, as part of a quarterly meeting with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
Representatives from the towns of Breckenridge and Frisco, the area ski resorts, local law enforcement as well as other interested members of the community were also in attendance.
The discussion centered on the latest developments for selecting a contractor to complete the project that will shorten the stretch of road by almost a ½-mile, eliminate a tight, potentially unsafe compound bend on the current route known as “Leslie’s Curve” and increase Highway 9 from two lanes — one each direction — to four. The plan will also relocate the recpath closer to Dillon Reservoir.
Opening bids for the project are due to CDOT on Thursday, Feb. 11. Thirteen firms possibly vying for the job previously picked up packets. A winning contractor and bid should be announced by no later than the end of February, with groundbreaking happening as early as this spring.
“(F)rom the stoplight into the County Commons to the stoplight into the hospital, if we don’t get that done, we’re all going to be really challenged as to, ‘What were you thinking?’”County Commissioner Thomas Davidson
From there, the project, which will be fully completed by Dec. 31, 2017, should move along relatively quickly because it is a brand-new roadway being carved out of the land and does not require diverting traffic or widening the current portion of the highway. This will also yield lower costs, by some approximations several million dollars, due to limiting necessary traffic control measures such as the use of flaggers and barricades, on top of lost construction hours to allow increased traffic flow on the weekends.
There’s even some projections that this new section of Highway 9 could be finished and ready for vehicles by winter 2016. That prospect, while admittedly improbable, has the county especially excited.
“We absolutely have two years of work to do,” said assistant county manager Thad Noll, “but traffic and a whole extra winter — wow, that would be very valuable. It would be unbelievable; but the truth is, it is possible the highway portion will be drivable by next winter. We’ll see.”
Not part of the Iron Springs project but tied to the same corridor and brought up during the same discussion was the predicament of Gap III. The ¾-mile section in Frisco, between the traffic light into the County Commons and the stoplight at Peak One Drive leading to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, will — at least for now — remain at just two lanes, one each direction.
To avoid a bottleneck following the Iron Springs expansion to four lanes, Noll suggested the possibility of a temporary workaround by restriping existing asphalt into four lanes. Doing so, however, may automatically trigger a condition, per the original project environmental impact statement, for the installation of noise walls and other mitigation requirements. The circumstances called for more study, but such a chokepoint could produce its own set of challenges.
“Picture the racing that occurs when trying to get in, ‘I’ve got to get in before you’ and you run out of lane,” he said. “Aye, yai, yai. So we’ll see how that all goes and figure out how four to two transitions.”
Gap III is part of the Breckenridge-to-Frisco project, just not the Iron Springs portion, so necessitates another sum of money neither CDOT nor the county has at the moment. The school of thought though, said Noll, is to work on these larger road projects piecemeal as money is available, even if there are growing pains.
“If you don’t do one segment because you don’t’ have the money for two segments, you’d never get anything done,” he said.
In the meantime, the approaching problem looms, with no solid estimates for how soon Gap III of the overall project might be tended to. The region receives an annual allotment for discretionary spending, but initial projections from the meeting suggested that potential funding through that means may not be accessible for the design work alone until as far out as 2021.
“No doubt we’ll address it, as funding is available and when it comes,” said Grant Anderson, CDOT’s resident engineer for the region. “We’re still focused on getting Iron Springs delivered, and then we’ll start the planning process to complete the corridor.”
Iron Springs is only a small part of a much larger Highway 9 corridor improvement plan dating as far back as 1999. Following land donations and agreements for a couple property swaps, among other detailed arrangements, the county received funding — then an estimated cost of $17.5 million — in 2013 for Iron Springs through CDOT’s Responsible Acceleration of Maintenance and Partnerships (RAMP) program. That also required a minimum 20-percent match between local public and private partners.
Increasing construction costs statewide then bumped the estimated project cost up approximately $5 million, and, in August 2015, the county announced a public-private partnership between the county, the town of Breckenridge and Vail Resorts, Inc. to make up the difference with another 20-percent match, totaling north of another $1 million. The county agreed to pick up long-term maintenance of the Vail Pass Recpath from CDOT, an in-kind contribution valued at $2 million, starting Jan. 1, 2017.
“There’s been a fabulous collaboration going on here to get this project done,” County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said at the CDOT meeting, before adding, “from the stoplight into the County Commons to the stoplight into the hospital, if we don’t get that done, we’re all going to be really challenged as to, ‘What were you thinking?’”
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Feb. 9 Breckenridge Town Council preview

#Breckenridge Colorado

Summit Daily News Link


Tuesday’s Breckenridge Town Council meeting starts on Feb. 9, at 7:30 p.m.
It will be held in the council chambers at Breckenridge Town Hall.
SECOND READING: AN ORDINANCE DESIGNATING OLD ENYEART PLACE AS A LANDMARK
Breckenridge Town Council will vote on Tuesday whether to designate Lot 7, Block 7, Yingling and Mickles (know as 112 South Harris Street) as a landmark.
On Dec. 1, the Planning Commission recommended the town adopt the structure as a local landmark.
Improvements to the property are more than 50 years old, and the property meets requirements for the “social” designation criteria for a landmark as it is associated with a notable person or their work.
SECOND READING: AN ORDINANCE DESIGNATING THE GALLAGHER RESIDENCE AS A LANDMARK
Similar to Old Enyeart Place, the Planning Commission also recommended that the town designate the Gallagher Residence (Lot 8A, Block 7 of the Yingling and Mickels Subdivision) as a local landmark.
The property, owned by Michael Gallagher, meet “physical integrity” criteria for a local landmark.
The property would meet architectural designation for a landmark because of its style, associated with the Breckenridge area in particular.
PLANNING COMMISSION MATTERS: RESTORING THE MARVEL HOUSE
Breckenridge’s Planning Commission recommends Town Council adopt an ordinance to locally landmark the historic Marvel House.
The full application not only includes the issue of landmarking, but also allowing for restoration, the addition of a basement, a new residence to the back of the historic house and a new separate garage (with an accessory apartment) above the alley.
SETTING AN ELECTION DATE
With recent changes to Colorado election law to accommodate overseas voters, the town will need to allow for flexibility in scheduling the first town council meeting in April for municipal election years.
As the new election law stands, the timeframe won’t allow for ballot certification until later than eight days after the election, putting new councilmembers in office after the first meeting in April. Hence, the need for flexibility in the first meeting date.
The resolution to amend this procedure will be voted on Tuesday evening.
SCHEDULED MEETINGS:
Breckenridge Housing Summit: Feb. 11 from 12-3 p.m.
Parking and Transit Forums: Feb. 18, 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Breckenridge Grand Vacations Community Center.
Coffee Talk: Friday, Feb. 19 from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. at Cabin Coffee
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Summit school board approves $1.5M technology initiative

#Summit County Colorado

Summit Daily News Link


New technologies and devices only continue to permeate school walls that not all that long ago featured chalkboards, overhead projectors and filmstrip lessons as the latest and greatest in teaching tools.
As the learning environment evolves further and further, the Summit School District has tried to stay ahead of the curve in delivering classrooms and spheres that provide cutting-edge academic experiences.
It’s why in its new strategic plan for the next five years, Vision 2020, the district laid out three facets for preparing students for the demands of the 21st century, one of which focuses on student-centered learning and how technological advancements supplement those interactions.
In pursuit of those ends, the district’s Board of Education unanimously endorsed a $1.5 million initiative at the end of January that, in effect, moves toward a one-to-one ratio of student-to-devices in order to augment the amount and depth of learning done through these new technologies.
The program is called One2World and its intention is to expand the resources, staffing and capabilities of Summit’s public schools in boosting use of various devices and access to the Internet to enhance the overall educational experience.
“Our teachers really are a point where they are teaching instructionally in a way that benefits from a greater ratio between the devices,” said Bethany Massey, the district’s director of technology and assessment. “Right now, they’re having to fight over a cart or having to take their kids down to a lab, and that really cuts down on instructional time.”
As a result, she helped lead a process researching the possibilities and benefits to increased technology and applications of these devices in the classroom setting. That investigation began as far back as three years ago to conclude how the district could best use its funds and resources to provide students with what they need to remain one of the top districts across the state, ranked No. 16 overall and accredited with distinction as recently as the 2013-14 school year.
Massey presented the culmination of all that work — from the project’s genesis to feedback from a volunteer technology committee and eventual implementation — in a detailed proposal at the most recent board meeting. The seven-member board, in supporting the objectives of the measure, approved its framework to the fullest extent it could, providing the total of $1.5 million for this school year and 2016-17, with intentions of dispensing a ceiling of about another $650,000 in sustainability funding for the year after that.
“Technology has really become less of an extra and more of a necessity,” explained Margaret Carlson, the Board of Education’s president. “They’re tools that our kids already use. At this point, not everybody has the same to technology, so we do need to put this plan in place and make sure everybody has what they need to do their work.”
NOT NEW, BUT IMPROVED
Schools across the district have for the last few years been incorporating lesson plans that utilize devices and have found notable success. Add to that that newly-fashioned mandatory state tests require an adept knowledge of how these technologies work to perform to the highest level, and further integrating everything from smartphones to tablets to laptops at the various grade levels only seems all the more sensible.
“We have already seen a substantial number of devices being brought to school and used,” said Massey. “Then also with the number that are fundraised for, we’ve increased our bandwidth this year to the max we could with our current infrastructure.”
Through measures including grant writing and fundraising, individual schools such as Summit Cove Elementary and Snowy Peaks High School have been able to make upgrades and new acquisitions above and beyond the annual technology budget with a rotational purchase cycle from the district. Even so, availability has still been touch-and-go depending on the school or class and has also stretched current Internet and WiFi access to its limits.
“We were going to have to make changes if we are going to keep up with the rate of growth without providing one-to-one devices,” Massey added. “Whether one-to-one was approved or not, that was going to have to be considered.”
At Summit High, for instance, Internet upgrades were made to the extent possible without adding a fiber-optic network to expand load capacity and quality. Still, WiFi dead zones remain in the school, and those as well as an increase in speeds would likely need to be addressed in the next few years, if not sooner.
Not only that, this piecemeal buying of the past has often resulted in one school having advantages that another does not, or distinct devices or operation platforms even within the same school. This forces teachers to spend as much time troubleshooting as providing instruction.
With One2World and the new reserves being geared toward the program, kindergartners through second-graders will begin on the same tablets. By third grade and through the close of elementary school, students will be introduced to a keyboard that fits with the tablet. By middle school, each student will have access to a Google Chromebook until he or she reaches ninth grade when higher-quality laptops with more capabilities are introduced through senior year.
ANOTHER TEACHING TOOL
Corresponding with the use of matching devices and consistency of technologies is the ease of teaching. Instead of having to act as technical support and fix a problem or problem-solve a workaround if an instructor is less familiar with one operating system or device compared to others, they can simply focus on the lesson and verbalizing the same steps to get similar results.
Recognizing that devices are only as good as the direction and instruction being extended about them, the district has already been investing in bringing teachers up to speed through professional development at the start of this school year. That entailed breakout sessions with more teach-savvy peers and has now moved toward how to lesson-plan and best mingle traditional teaching methods with the use of devices to help students learn and in many cases surpass previous standards.
There are those who remain skeptical that technology — or at least the use of it in schools to the extent that it necessitates a $1.5 million investment (which could be as much as $2.1 million in the first three years of One2World in Summit schools) — will net the results for which the district is hoping. That an increased number of devices and access to them will increase the level of education obtained by students.
To this, Massey has what might come as a surprising response.
“I would actually say I agree,” she said. “The technology is just a tool; it’s all about the way that it’s used in the classroom to give students other options. It’s not the device, it’s about how you use the device. With one-to-one programs that are rolled out successfully, you really do see some strong return on investment as far as benefits for the student.”
Now with this new financial backing for One2World as part of the larger Vision 2020 strategic plan, the Summit School District is maintaining its emphasis of technology in the classroom. It’s with these additional strides toward a one-to-one ratio of devices-to-students, say proponents, that the ways in which education progresses into the future will only continue to far exceed our greatest expectations.
“I think it’s adding opportunities for our students,” she said. “It’s about what’s best for kids. We’re really trying to get to a place of redefining the learning experience.”
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Today's top five things to do in Summit County

#Summit County Colorado

Summit Daily News Link

                                                                                 The New Mastersounds will play
                                                                                                             at Warren Station in Keystone on Sunday, Feb. 7.
                                                                                                      Go to warrenstation.com for more information.
                                                                                                                        



Pop into Art! with Karen Fischer

Breckenridge, Feb. 7
10 a.m., Fuqua Livery Stable, 110 E Washington Ave. Discover the dot paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhols Campbell Soup Cans, and Jim Dines hearts. Students will draw and create their own Pop Art paintings in acrylic on canvas. (970) 453-3364.

United in Orange

Breckenridge
310 Wellington Rd. The Father Dyer Food Pantry is participating in the #unitedinorange food challenge. Bring your donations to the Father Dyer Food Pantry during Food Pantry hours, Tuesdays & Thursdays 10 a.m.-12 p.m. You can also send a Food Drive donation to Treasurer@FatherDyer.com via PayPal or by mail to PO Box 383.
To view a full listing of today’s events visit http://www.summitdaily.com/Entertainment/Calendar/
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Celebrate Mardi Gras in Summit County

#Summit County Colorado

Courtesy Keystone Neighbourhood Co

Summit Daily News Link

Summit County is known for its traditions that gather people together for a day of celebration. One tradition that keeps people laughing, their bellies full and the competition high is the Mardi Gras celebration.
Mardi Gras translates to Fat Tuesday and refers to carnival events and celebrating by eating richer, fatty foods before practicing the fasting ritual of Lenten. To ensure bellies are full, Keystone hosts its Mardi Gras celebration and gumbo cook off fit for all ages.
“Keystone has been known for our Mardi Gras celebration over the years,” said Maja Russer, director of events and marketing at the Keystone Neighbourhood Company. “It’s become part of the Keystone culture. Over the past five years we try to put an emphasis on the gumbo cook off because Keystone is known for its culinary aspects.”
There’s also live music, games, a cash bar and the call for Summit County’s best gumbo. Chefs prepare this meal just like the official cuisine of Louisiana. Eleven Keystone restaurants are participating as well as a few coming up from Denver, so there should be plenty of variety.
“We have some of the local restaurants, like 9280 Taphouse, Luigi’s Pasta House and staples from around Keystone, and in addition we have Arapahoe Basin as well as a couple of outside vendors,” Russer said. “We also have the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver.”
The Hyatt Regency are the returning champions from last year’s gumbo cook off. Colorado Mountain College is also participating in the friendly competition. There will be two categories that restaurants can enter: a chicken and sausage or seafood/exotic. Participants are welcome to choose between these two categories or even enter in both of them.
“It’s good because it gives the local guys a nice little boost of competition,” Russer said.
Gumbo is a stew that originated in Southern Louisiana. It mainly consists of stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, as well as vegetables, bell peppers and onions and is usually served over rice. It’s a simple meal that can easily be made into something unique.
“I think people definitely pride themselves on that super secret ingredient,” Russer said. “We hear from one of the chefs that he ordered in fresh okra that will arrive on Monday for preparation. We love the competitive spirit that people come out and have. There’s a little trash talking in a fun way.”
People can choose and vote for their favorite style of gumbo, from Creole to Cajun. The Keystone Neighborhood Company will give out a Team Spirit award to the booth with the best Mardi Gras costume.
“We started a team spirit award last year,” Russer said. “We decided it’s another fun way to animate the whole event.”
During the event, there will be funky tunes starting at 3:30 p.m. A local DJ will start the Mardi Gras celebration and local favorite Funky Johnson will perform on stage for a free concert.
BRECKENRIDGE
Breckenridge welcomes the Mardi Gras celebration with masks, boas, music and a carnival-style celebration.
Visit Breckenridge for its annual Mardi Gras parade then head over to Main Street Station to keep the party going. There will be live music, gumbo, dancing and, of course, the drink of the evening, Hurricanes, which is a rum-based drink.
“Hurricanes are what any would argue as a classic New Orleans cocktail,” said Rachel Zerowin of the Breckenridge Tourism Office. “It’s looked at as one of those cocktails that tend to come out around carnival season.”
Colorful floats will dance their way down Main Street, with the traditional purple, yellow and green beads thrown into the crowd. Parade winners will be announced after the show.
“Last year we had the street party and people really liked it but what we heard is that people love the parade,” Zerowin said. “So this year we’re giving the people the best of both worlds. We’re bringing back the parade on Main Street at 4:30 p.m., then it’s going to all culminate at Main Street Station. That’s where we’re going to have the fire dancers, these larger-than-life puppets, live music, gumbo and hurricanes.”
Mardi Gras is truly a celebration for everyone. HomeSlice will make sure the energy is high with their funky rhythm and good soul music.
Costumes are a big part of the celebration and everyone should get a chance to dawn their creative side — even the dogs. L.A.P.S (League for Animals and People of the Summit) and the Lost Cajun restaurant in Frisco are hosting the annual Mardi Gras 4Paws parade on Saturday in Frisco so dogs and their families can show off their colorful costumes to the whole town.
“People can dress up all they want,” Zerowin said. “It’s a lot of fun and it helps get into the vibe and spirit of Mardi Gras.”
Although the traditional Mardi Gras celebration we know and love wasn’t started here in Summit County, it’s definitely here to stay.
“It was all started by a group of New Orleanais who were vacationing in Breckenridge and decided that they wanted to start a parade,” Zerowin said. “So it’s all very organic, very Breckenridge and the tradition has carried on.”
Summit County has many different traditions and celebrations that we’ve adapted from worshiping a Norse snow god to celebrating the ancestors that have passed before us, to the colorful Mardi Gras celebration. All of these are special and unique to Summit County in their own way and continue to grow as the years pass.
“It’s very Breckenridge, and the idea that it was started by this passionate group of people who really found their second home here — and it’s continued on as a tradition — is what makes it special,” Zerowin said.
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Mix of reduced budgets and swelling demands hurt forest service's capabilities

#Summit County Colorado

Summit Daily News Link
Courtesy of White River National Forest



The White River National Forest is the busiest forest in the country, seeing record numbers of visitors each year. And yet, like the rest of the U.S. Forest Service System, funding continues to decrease or be re-allocated annually.
The combination of expanding requests from its 12 million-plus annual guests, and yet additional cutbacks, has put the multiple-use agency charged with taking care of public forest land in a bind. The duties range from presiding over varied territory, providing an assortment of individual permits and overseeing 11 ski resorts, to timber production, water protection and wildfire management. But demands have now overtaken the depleted workforce’s capabilities.
“It gets more and more challenging every year,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, forest supervisor for White River. “The cuts we’ve seen, they’re not just nibbling around the edges; they’ve been significant. We can’t continue to go at pace when we had 40 more employees; we just have to cut the services we provide.”
The Dillon Ranger District in Silverthorne, for instance, used to employ 25 employees. Due to downsizing and essential cost-saving, that number is down to 17 after eight positions were effectively eliminated — with six openings presently vacant — leaving just 11 employees to do the job of a staff more than twice its size.
White River as a whole has 45 vacancies among its 150 positions tasked with covering 2.3-million acres of land. The shortfall has only contributed to making fulfilling the the desires of its visitors impossible.
Add to it the stripping down of federal funding, and it’s a dilemma with no clear solution. The same circumstances are affecting the 154 forests across the country, and, in the White River, the budget has been slashed by about 40 percent in just the last five years — from approximately $27 million in 2009-10, to an estimated $15-to-$16 million for 2015-16.
“We don’t have the federal funds we need to do the job adequately, that’s probably a given,” said Bill Jackson, district ranger for Dillon. “We recognize that this is busy district, a busy forest. I think we all wish we could keep up with the demand and have more employees patrolling and monitoring. So we look for help.”
NEEDED ASSISTANCE
That help has come in the way of non-federal assistance from nonprofits, local town and county governments and large volunteer efforts. Managing ever-increasing needs has forced the agency to become creative with partnerships, hiring seasonal workers and even utilizing workarounds, like temporary inmate workforces.
Through a workforce rehabilitation program for prisoners who have exhibited good behavior, the forest service is able to contract cheap labor and also get important work completed on timber and pile-burning projects, as well as with wildfire-management obligations. In trade, inmates from Rifle and Buena Vista through Colorado Correctional Industries are able to get outdoors, simultaneously taking advantage of rehabilitation opportunities through nature for this population.
As for volunteer endeavors, the Dillon Ranger District was the benefactor of 22,500 service hours in 2015, across an estimated 100 projects primarily during the summer. That equates to a value of $500,000, or 12.5 person-years — a measure that determines the number of employees it helps offset. That gets the district to about the 25 it previously employed.
Of that high volume of volunteer commitment, 8,500 hours were provided through Friends of the Dillon Ranger District (FDRD), an organization that helps support this section of the White River National Forest through education, outreach and general financial support. The 11-year-old nonprofit managed 58 projects, mostly trail building and improvements, at a value of $200,000 and incorporating more than 300 youth volunteers.
“When the forest service doesn’t have the manpower, then we can step in with volunteers to get the work done, essentially to support the Summit County communities as well as the forest service,” said Mike Connolly, FDRD’s executive director. “Part of our programming is an educational aspect, and a third of our programs are with youth groups; so we’re passing along to future generations forest stewardship because if we don’t get them involved now with the use of trails, then future generations won’t have these type of trails to hike, bike and walk on.”
These efforts and service hours have only become more vital with each passing year.
“In the past, it was groups like that often did the white-hat projects and extras,” said Fitzwilliams. “Now these volunteers and service groups do the critical work of the forest service, because we just don’t have the funding or people to do it.”
Despite collaborations with myriad other organizations — including, among others, the National Forest Fund (NFF) through its Ski Conservation Fund, Xcel Energy, Denver Water and countless other volunteer streams — White River is quickly reaching its ceiling for taking on any additional projects because of the amount of oversight that would take from its limited staff.
“We’re at a critical mass with the number of volunteers and partners (whom) we can manage well,” said Jackson. “We’re there already. That’s all we can handle with our given capacity. So it’s a dance.”
COMPLEX CONFLAGRATION
Another primary culprit to limitations consistently being thrust onto the national forest system is the redistribution of its federal funding going toward fighting forest fires. Although Colorado had a fairly low-key year for these often devastating blazes, last year set a record for the amount of acreage burned throughout the country.
These disasters of epic proportions have forced surging amounts of the overall budget being put toward fire expenditures. In 1995, just 16 percent of the available funding was dedicated to wildfire costs. Last year, it escalated all the way up to 52 percent, and some projections for 2025 suggest it may eat up as much as 67 percent of the forest service’s comprehensive moneys.
Aside from expensive equipment and other resources in the fight, fire staffing within the forest service has increased 114 percent since 1998 — from about 5,700 to more than 12,000 in 2015. As a result, staff dedicating to other forest needs has decreased by almost 40 percent, from approximately 18,000 in ’98 to fewer than 11,000 last year.
Many point to the dramatic ramping up of wildfires — particularly in the West — to climate change, which comes with it plenty of contention. No one can, however, can argue that these mass conflagrations are a mounting problem.
“I don’t think it’s up for debate that over the last decade we’ve experienced some of the warmest temperatures on record worldwide, as well as prolonged drought in many parts of the country,” said Jackson. “That’s just undeniable. The source of that seems to be what gets people stirred up. But that’s not for us to decide. When there’s a fire on the ground in the national forest, we’ve got to do something about it.”
Mix all of these issues together, and it’s a combustible scenario that only makes performing the traditional role of forest management by the federal agency increasingly difficult. High turnover rates in the White River because of the lofty demands of its employees and high cost of living only intensifies the obstacles locally in Summit County and the surrounding areas.
“We’ve taken our fair share of reductions, but so have other forests,” said Fitzwilliams. “The challenging part making us unique is the increasing demands of the forest the number of visits, the ski resorts and the demand for permits — and still with budgets going the opposite way. We’ve had to ask people to do more and more work, and there’s a limit to that. There really is, and we’re reaching some of those limits.”
It means less presence on the ground for enforcement, reduced road and facility maintenance and improvements and much more incremental steps with new projects, such as ski resort and trail expansion and upgrades. But it’s simply a reality of shrinking budgets — even if the expectations of these officials only continues to climb.
“When we lose employees, the work doesn’t go away,” said Jackson. “We have to backfill with existing employees, or we find temporary fixes. We want people to enjoy the outdoors, we want people to use the national forest. We take a certain level of pride in what we do, and we’d love to be able to keep up with that level of use and level of demand.
“It kind of stinks when we know there are things that we can’t address,” he added. “Some things just don’t get done, or done as quickly, I guess.”
Courtesy of the Summit Daily News.