Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and condensed for clarity.
White River National Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams enters his sixth year in the pivotal position for the region this year after moving back to Colorado to take on the role in 2010. Now after more than 25 years combined in the Forest Service, he reflects on the changes he’s witnessed in the forest from various perspectives and parts of the country — Alaska, North Dakota and Oregon, to name a few — how the nation’s busiest forest intends to keep up with demand and the challenges the National Forest Service anticipates down the road.
Summit Daily News: What are the biggest challenges?
What we have to do now is start to reset expectations as far as what we can provide. ... it’s going to take tons and tons of collaboration with the communities and stakeholders and politicians and business owners. But it’s do-able.
Scott Fitzwilliams: Certainly from the national perspective, one of the biggest issues affecting the agency is what we call fire funding. It’s just over the last 12 to 15 years, the escalating cost of fire suppression is consuming more and more and more of the Forest Service budget. Last year, it was 52 percent. It’s projected in less than 10 years (2025) to be 67 percent. Going from 16 percent (1995) to where we’re at now — yet the overall budget did not change much — it’s really starting to affect the rest of the programs in the Forest Service. It’s becoming a tipping point as far as being able to maintain the basic levels of certain programs right now. So getting that fixed is a big priority for the agency nationwide.
SDN: So then how do you fix it? Won’t that take a legislative measure in Washington, D.C.?
SF: Yes, it’s something that Congress is going to have to do, and that’s a tough process. There’s a lot of implications no matter which way you go. That’s the prerogative they have, and we’re just going to deal with it in the meantime. But it’s a big problem. How it’ll shake out, I don’t know. The struggle of dealing with natural disasters like forest fire out of the budget — where no other agency or no other natural disaster is treated that way — is significant. Every year it’s getting worse as far as the available dollars for other work. A lot of years, we tend to start to run out of money halfway through the summer, and then they start taking the money from accounts we have in recreation or trails or wildlife. It’s really disruptive. We should be out doing work; instead, we’re trying to crunch numbers.
SDN: And yet, the White River is still operating in the black, right?
SF: I’m proud of that, although we’re not just here to make a profit. I’m very proud of the fact that we’re efficient. We bring well over $10 million to the U.S. Treasury than we spend in taxpayers’ money. We made a sizable profit for the taxpayers. However, the trends are so steep right now going from in 2010, when I started here a $30 million budget to what is looking like an estimate of somewhere around $16 million for the 2016 budget. At that same time, demand for all the goods and services — and permits, and projects, and fuels treatments — is up. So those two lines aren’t going in the same direction; they’re going the opposite.
On this forest, we have 15 fewer employees than when I arrived; we probably have enough money for 20 or 25, and that’s assuming our budget doesn’t go down again next year. If it does, we can’t even hire that many people. So it puts us in a position where we are really prioritizing what we can get done. It’s a lot less, and, unfortunately in a lot of cases, it means delaying projects that people want or not being able to respond for permit requests and the drastic reduction in field presence. There, you’re just going to see a gradual decrease in what we’re going to be able to do and then a decline in the condition of the resource. It’s just where we’re at. Our discretionary dollars — and those are dollars we have to choose to do things on the ground — are drying up very fast.
SDN: Is what you expected to do when you arrived to the White River in 2010 and what you’re doing today dramatically different?
SF: No. I think we’re still doing great work, and we’re still accomplishing an amazing amount of work. For the most part, I enjoy everything I do. I’m just spending a lot more time now trying to make ends meet in the most basic sense. We pinch pennies like I never have in my career, which I think the taxpayers expect out of us. Purchases are reviewed and scoured pretty closely to make sure it fits a priority. That part of the work is not as fun obviously, and it’s getting harder and harder. It’s also harder and harder to keep the morale of the employees up because as we lose positions, and, have less funding, the demand for the work is still there and the expectation of the public is still there. So we, across the board, ask people to do more work, and there’s a limit to that. Most of us join the service because we enjoy public service and natural-resource management, and it’s getting harder and harder to deliver those things.
SDN: In your time with White River, has your position changed at all on a day-to-day basis?
SF: No, it really hasn’t. I’ve always said this: Working in the Forest Service is really an experiment into human dimensions. It’s really about the people part of it, which I enjoy. Obviously, we have resources to manage, and that’s our ultimate responsibility, but the challenges and the debates and the collaboration all center around people and values. That part of it hasn’t changed at all, which is still and always will be a major part of what we do. It’s challenging because when you’re dealing with human values, it’s not something we can put a scientific structure to. I often say the reason I enjoy my job is because it changes about every 11 minutes. I can jump around, and I stay challenged, I stay interested and intrigued by the work because it’s different every day. And I think you have to be pretty adaptable for that.
SDN: To what extent has the philosophy of general Forest Service management evolved now into your sixth year here?
SF: The challenges we have with just the restoration of our forest communities and watersheds will remain, and they’re going to get harder because of the population influences, especially in this part of the country. All of those people are going to need to drink water, I know that for a fact. Demands for resources like water, which the forests of Colorado provide the vast majority of all the drinking water for everyone in the state — most people don’t know it, but that’s where it comes from — so the demands for water are going to be intense. And then the demands for outdoor recreation are going to be equally intense. There’s going to be a percentage (who) are going to want to discover and recreate and experience the forest and the multitude of things you can do, and that’s a little overwhelming because we’re already way behind the eight-ball in managing the 13 million people who come here every year. So we’re going to be challenged with that. As I look to the future, that’s one of the largest challenges we’re going to have — being able to keep that restoration theme while we’re “entertaining” (for lack of a better word) the huge number of guests. And I want them to come here because I think it renews the spirit, it keeps people healthy and vibrant, which this state is known for in the nation. But the management of that and the ability to have sustainable recreation settings, and that people have a good experience, that’s a daunting task in the future.
There’s going to be areas where there will be limits; I don’t think there’s any question in the future that will be part of it. What we have to do now is start to reset expectations as far as what we can provide. We don’t want to sacrifice some of the incredible things this forest can offer: wild lands, wilderness, places where you can get a little solitude. Those are things that are going to challenge us. It’s going to take a little different mindset; it’s going to take tons and tons of collaboration with the communities and stakeholders and politicians and business owners. But it’s do-able.