From the May 2005 Idaho Observer:


USFS looking to save money by closing national parks

Costs of war, gas will inconvenience vacationing Americans this summer

By The Idaho Observer

The Associated Press reported April 25, 2005, that a "cash strapped U.S. Forest Service (USFS) can no longer afford to maintain many of its parks and has started ranking recreational sites, including campgrounds and trailheads, for possible closure."

The announcement came from the western region office in Portland which identified Oregon’s Deschutes and Winema national forests as high on the list.

So far, the war in Iraq has cost almost $170 billion. Since war is a higher priority than maintaining our national treasures and keeping them open to the vacationing public, Congress has diverted funds away from such unnecessary expenditures.

USFS officials, however, attribute the pending closures to President Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative—a plan to thin flammable western forests—has diverted funds away from park facilities maintenance. Critics claim the USFS explanation is either a cover story or evidence of mismanagement. Forest thinning results in merchantable timber that is commonly logged under USFS supervision by private contractors. Plus, the national park system takes in $millions in revenue each year through user fees.

The USFS is even selling off stations and offices that are no longer necessary since logging activity in the U.S. has declined.

Getting ready for a long budgetary drought, the USFS, in its centennial year, is in the process of rating 2,635 recreation sites in Washington and Oregon. Expected to be complete by 2007, the rating system will assess facility operation and maintenance costs and popularity. Though none of these national treasures will be sold, some will be mothballed immediately. Others will follow as budgets for operating and maintenance dwindle by millions of dollars each year.

"It is likely that most forests will have to make tough decisions to close some sites, curtail operations at other sites and decommission some sites in order to define a sustainable program," former Deputy Chief Tom Thompson wrote to regional foresters last month.

It is expected that the best-earning sites will stay open so the government can profit from public lands like a private commercial enterprise.

"They will close those sites the public has always enjoyed but which they cannot afford because they are not profitable," said Scott Silver of the Bend group Wild Wilderness. "It’s the complete perversion of the meaning of public lands."

The rising cost of gasoline is expected to reduce the number of vacationers patronizing the nation’s national parks this year, further reducing revenues the USFS depends upon for maintenance of its most popular attractions.

The long-range planning of forest closures is a sign of the times. Though the only sign of it here at home are those "Support Our Troops" appliques on cars, we are in war time and Congress and the president have their priorities. We can expect deep cuts in budgets for libraries, parks and museums as well. It is amazing how the institutions that people love—the ones that pay tribute to natural beauty, celebrate human creativity through art, literature and history—are always the first to go when the bombs start falling.