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Community Involvement Crucial to Outdoor Preservation

The USFS is going broke fighting fire, but local nonprofits can help
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In the midst of climate change and a dramatic rise in the number of large-scale wildfires occurring in 2017/18 alone, firefighting costs now consume a rapidly growing portion of already tight Forest Service budgets and available staff, meaning that nonprofit partners of government agencies need to play an increasingly critical role in managing trails, recreation, planning, and other essential activities taking place on public lands. As Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Pacific Southwest Regional Forester, noted in his op-ed late last month, More Fires Mean Less Funds for Local Forest Service Projects, the Forest Service is the only federal agency required to fund its entire emergency management program through its regular appropriations budget. This means the more the agency spends on the essential work of fighting large, devastating fires, the less it has to spend on other programs, like maintaining and constructing trails and upgrading recreation facilities.

Locally, the Tahoe Rim Trail Association (TRTA) and the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association are responsible for about 300 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails in and around the Tahoe Basin in partnership with the USFS and NV State Parks. Together, they manage the vast majority of trails in Tahoe — these partnerships are vital to the quality of life and economy of the Tahoe region.

While the importance of the USFS firefighting program is undeniable, it comes at a great cost to other crucial work the USFS has traditionally accomplished. This “fire borrowing” leaves fewer people and less money available to maintain and construct trails and other recreation infrastructure or plan for future recreation projects.  Such functions are vital to our public lands, particularly in the Tahoe Basin where 56,000 permanent residents and 5.7 million annual visitors rely on them.

A 2015 USFS publication titled The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work notes that the loss of staffing and funding for non-fire work on National Forests has a “debilitating impact [on] … programs and infrastructure that support thousands of recreation jobs and billions of dollars of economic growth.” This is particularly true in communities such as ours, that are dependent on outdoor recreation and pristine public lands.

USFS staff dedicated to managing National Forest lands decreased by 39 percent between 1998 and 2015, while fire staffing increased 114 percent over the same time period. The study also found that 67 percent of the national USFS budget would go toward wildland fire programs by 2025, up from just 16 percent in 1995. USFS money for planning, building and maintaining recreation infrastructure is literally disappearing in a haze of smoke.

Due to the reallocation of resources, the USFS is more reliant on local non-profit partners to maintain and expand recreation opportunities than at any time in the past. The TRTA and the Tahoe region’s other nonprofit trail organizations are up to the task, and have been expanding to help fill the holes left by diminished agency resources. However, now more than ever, local nonprofit groups working on public land need public support to lead the charge. These groups are building, maintaining, and improving the valued outdoor centric infrastructure that helps make the Tahoe region one of the best places to recreate in the country. If you value outdoor recreation on public lands and its effect on our community’s quality of life and economy please consider becoming a member of a local trail organization or joining one of the scores of volunteer events hosted around the lake each year. Our forests and trails need us, now more than ever.

~ Chris Binder serves as the director of trail operations for the Tahoe Rim Trail Association. He holds advanced degrees in landscape architecture and natural resource management and has a professional background in recreational trail design and construction, environmental planning, and trail management.

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December 13, 2018