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Science & Environment

Budget Cuts Force Colorado National Forest To Rely On Volunteer Labor

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you visit one of the most popular national forests in the country this summer, you might not see a forest ranger. Colorado's White River National Forest is relying on volunteers because of budget cuts. They're doing what Forest Service staff staff used to do - maintaining trails, educating people about bear safety and cleaning outhouses. From Aspen Public Radio, Marci Krivonen has the story.

MARCI KRIVONEN, BYLINE: Ten volunteers are gathered in a grove of aspen trees near the snowcapped mountain peaks of the White River National Forest in north central Colorado. Forest Service ranger Eric Tierney is giving a lesson about how to keep black bears away from campsites.

ERIC TIERNEY: This looks like a good tree over here.

KRIVONEN: He heads toward a sturdy aspen and ties a knot around a rock on one end of rope and a bag of food on the other. The idea is to toss the rope over a high branch and hoist the food out of a bear's reach.

TIERNEY: It can be pretty amazing how much your food can weigh. So you also want to try and find a branch that can stand the weight of the food as well.

KRIVONEN: He takes aim and...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, you've done this before.

TIERNEY: Oh, no, there it goes. See, that's why you want to hang onto it (laughter). But I got lucky on that one.

KRIVONEN: It's day two of training for these volunteers. Dottie McArthur is a retired divorce attorney volunteering this summer.

DOTTIE MCARTHUR: I think we're doing something really valuable for the forest - to educate people so we can all protect this forest for future generations. If we don't, we're just going to love it to death.

KRIVONEN: States including Colorado, California, Oregon and Montana are turning to volunteers. But the amount of free labor in the White River National Forest has really increased, especially since it sees 12 million visitors annually, and that number's growing. But the Forest Service has less money to maintain trails and keep the public safe.

SCOTT FITZWILLIAMS: Volunteers, partners and donators have saved our bacon.

KRIVONEN: Scott Fitzwilliams is supervisor for the White River National Forest. Over the last decade, his local operating budget has been slashed by $2 million and he's had to cut employees.

FITZWILLIAMS: Things are tough. We all know about the federal budget. We all know that right now spending across the board - Congress is not picking on us - but it's very tight. And so we're dealing with what are pretty extreme, right now, reductions.

JON CHAPMAN: (Laughter) Very cheap, though (laughter) and I'm worth every penny (laughter).

KRIVONEN: Jon Chapman started volunteering two decades ago back when the number of volunteers was dramatically lower.

CHAPMAN: I was just looking for a summer gig and I came here and spoke with them and they "hired me," quote, unquote.

KRIVONEN: Chapman's nearly 80, but works like a 20-year-old, monitoring roads, trails and campgrounds and cleaning public toilets eight hours a day, five days a week.

CHAPMAN: Well, it's volunteer work because I do the same thing as people that get paid the big bucks from the government.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yay.

TIERNEY: That was a great bear hang.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Look at that.

TIERNEY: Yeah, that's it.

KRIVONEN: Back at the training grounds, the new volunteers wrap up their lesson on bears. Dottie McArthur says she's learned a lot already.

MCARTHUR: I feel all important with my uniform. And I can hardly wait to impress my daughter with my new authority (laughter). And it's just great connecting with people that come up here for the first time and want to learn about the area.

KRIVONEN: But the volunteer help only goes so far. The White River is maintaining fewer trails and roads than it used to. For NPR News, I'm Marci Krivonen in an Aspen, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.