San Gabriel Valley Tribune


San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Article Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2003

ARTICLES IN THIS SECTION

9/14/2003
- Under Siege
- Cartels growing pot in forest
- Forest at crossoads over public use
- Lake not so crystal
- Fire threat still high, officials say
- Facing Extinction
9/15/2003
- Masses and Messes
- A foul problem: garbage
- Groups spread blame for forest damage
- Forest dwellers have created their share of problems
9/16/2003
- 'Static' budget hinders forest
- Bad roads hinder vistor, fire vehicle access
- Adventure Pass raises funds, eyebrows
9/17/2003
- Saving the forest a tall task

SPECIAL REPORT: ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST

'Static' budget hinders forest
Majority of funding for fire prevention

By Lisa Faught, Staff Writer

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST - Protecting our precious natural resource costs money. Lots of it.

But, the U.S. Forest Service's budget doesn't reflect those economic realities: while income is about the same, costs continue to rise. "Other than fire, the budget is static,' said Gail Wright, spokeswoman for the forest. "But what you have is the cost of doing business increasing. Just the cost of doing business is much higher than 10 years ago.'

That simple reality has the U.S. Forest Service between the proverbial rock and a hard place. While doing more with less is a familiar concept, the impact is obvious. There are just 34 forest workers to pick up more trash, monitor increased traffic and police heavily used areas.

The result is a forest under siege. In real dollars, officials do not have the resources necessary to protect the forest.

The budget for the Angeles National Forest actually increased to $28.95 million in 2002 from $18.3 million in 1992.

But numbers can be deceiving, officials say.

The percentage of funding earmarked for fire prevention has jumped to more than 50 percent from 27 percent - good news for fire prevention, bad news for other areas.

In other words, funding for the rest of the daily operations hovered between $9.8 million and $13.4 million over 10 years, for an average of about $11.3 million per year.

That means about $11.3 million to run a 690,000-acre forest settling boundary disputes, cleaning restrooms, conducting archaeological studies, fixing trails, patrolling for marijuana growers, stocking lakes with fish, purchasing private land within forest borders and reviewing requests to build cell towers. Money constraints strain resources

Resources strained

Forest officials say the tiny budget has led to the loss of a number of basic services. That means everyone trying to do more with less.

Take Cid Morgan, district ranger for the Santa Clarita/Mojave River Ranger District. Even though Morgan is responsible for fully one-third of Angeles National Forest, she feels compelled to pick up trash whenever she spots an overflowing trash bin.

In fact, she instructs all her staff to go above and beyond their job descriptions as a way to stretch dollars.

"I tell them, 'You have to do the job that needs to be done. Don't drive by and let it get worse,'' Morgan said. "When the fire bell rings, even people who are not primarily firefighters are helping.'

The Forest Service is required to conduct numerous studies every year, enforce compliance on more than 2,000 special permits and keep up the forest for a growing number of visitors.

While the ranks of firefighters have steadily increased, the number of archaeologists remains at two despite the crush of studies they must review, she said.

Also, most of the 18 national forests in California receive funds for their natural resources, such as timber or minerals.

But in the Angeles, the majority of the federal funding is for recreation and fire prevention, said Matt Mathes, Forest Service spokesman for the region. Foresters overwhelmed by people influx

Overwhelmed by influx

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County's population increased by 600,000 from 1990 to 2000, which means more people - about 3.5 million annually - visiting the forest. More than 9 million people live within an hour's drive of the forest, with 1.7 million in the San Gabriel Valley alone. That makes it a popular destination.

Ben White
BEN WHITE of the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders cuts through a tree that is blocking the Big Cienga Trail above Crystal Lake, while fellow volunteer, Ingeborg Prochazka, grades the trail. (Staff photo by Bernardo Alps)
So, the Forest Service relies on a small army of volunteers to help with running the day-to-day operations.

Volunteers do everything from maintaining trails, fixing campsites, and manning fire lookouts to exporting trash via llamas.

They include the Fisheries Resource Volunteer Corps, Jet Propulsion Lab Trailbuilders, Sierra Madre Area Singles, Azusa Canyon Off Roaders Association and Angeles National Forest Fire Lookout Association.

Ben White, a volunteer with the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders, spends two or three days a month fixing the trails in the forest.

Never-ending tasks

The combination of wind, rain, steep terrain and people constantly erodes the trails, he said. With so many people plying the trails, the Forest Service can't keep up on its own, he said.

"It's just like carpentry. When you're doing one thing, something else behind you falls apart. It's never-ending and changes day to day,' White said. "The overall budget just isn't what it should be for a forest so close to such an urban place.' Feds keep eye on the books

Questions have also arisen about the way the Forest Service keeps its budget. The federal General Accounting Office has been monitoring the Forest Service for more than a decade because of its loose accounting practices.

Over the years, audits have revealed holes in accounting for where all the money goes.

The most recent set of reports, released in June, say Forest Service accounting has improved but still faces many problems with making decisions and upgrading computer systems.

A budget released to this newspaper by the Forest Service was typed on a single sheet of paper, without a Forest Service logo or letterhead.

It shows how much federal money the Angeles National Forest receives every year, broken down into roughly six categories, plus one for local revenues generated from Adventure Pass sales.

The forest actually receives federal funding earmarked for about 25 different categories, but most fall under six main headings: fire prevention, land, maintenance and construction, administration, recreation and forest resources, Wright said.


-- Lisa Faught can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4496, or by e-mail at lisa.faught@sgvn.com.

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