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Budget cuts reduce Siskiyou Forest's services

By Scott Graves

Wescom News Service

Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, Ore. – Campers and day visitors on Chetco River bars this summer will find plenty of cool water and sunshine, but few toilets or trash cans.

They also will find that the U.S. Forest Service's Little Red-wood campground is closed.

The culprit? Budget cuts.

A 64-percent loss in maintenance funds and a 20-percent cut in operational funding has forced the Rogue River-Siskiyou Nat-ional Forest Service to shutter 24 campgrounds, three picnic sites and related services throughout its 1.8 million acres of national forest.

For the Gold Beach Ranger District, which reaches from the Rogue River to the Winchuck River, the loss of funding means no more trash or toilet services on the the Chetco River east of Loeb State Park.

The only toilet facilities now available are the toilets at Loeb and a permanent pit toilet at Nook Bar.

Additional national forest campgrounds closed in Curry County include Illahe Camp-ground (between Agness and Foster Bar) on the Rogue River, and Winchuck Campground on the Winchuck River.

Forest users have noticed the changes.

"This is really a disaster," said Curry County resident Ed Gross, a former Forest Service employee who, along with other former forest service employees, started a wilderness cleanup project this year.

"It's a sad case of a lack of desire to serve the public," Gross said.

Forest service officials, however, say it's a matter of money – or lack there of.

"We received our (federal) allocations and had to adjust our services accordingly," said John Borton, district ranger for the Gold Beach Ranger District.

For the past several years, the federal government has been budgeting less money each year to U.S. Forest Districts throughout the country.

According to its Web site, the Forest Service's proposed fiscal year 2008 budget totals $4.13 billion in discretionary appropriations, a $64.25 million decrease from 2007.

For the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest Service, which has slowly been downsizing its staff and services in recent years, the impact is becoming more noticeable.

Patty Burel, public affairs officer for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, said her regional office saw its maintenance budget for its five districts, including Gold Beach, drop from $212,000 in 2006 to $74,000 in 2007, a 65 percent difference.

Its operation budget – for campgrounds, river bars and trailheads – was cut from $1.1 million in 2006 to $879,000 in 2007 – a 20 percent difference, Burel said.

The budget for trail maintenance went from $279,000 in 2006 to $189,000 in 2007, she said.

Still, Burel was optimistic.

"People need to know that most of the forest is still open," she said. "We still have open 46 campgrounds, eight picnic areas, 38 day-use area and 58 trailheads."

Also, she added, the campground closures and canceled services are not necessarily permanent.

For example, she said, her office recently received an additional $133,000 for its maintenance budget, to be spread among it's five districts. The office, she said, is waiting for replies from district managers on where and on what they want spend the money.

"It gives us an opportunity to add more services back," Burel said.

Additional money from federal forest-related programs might also come later in the year and allow the districts to restore services, she said.

Curry Transfer and Recycling Manager Pete Smart said the Forest Service would save a total of $9,782 from June to September by not having the toilets and trash cans.

In deciding which national forest campgrounds to close this year, the Forest Service developed a recreational site master plan in which it studied day use areas, campgrounds and trails from the Cascade Mountain Range to the coast, according to Ranger Borton.

The agency closed those with less use than others, Borton said.

For example, the Winchuck River Campground was closed because more people use the nearby Ludlum Campground.

"We had to make some tough decisions, but overall most of our day use, trailheads and campgrounds remain open," Borton said.

Also, he said, the Forest Service is not charging for camping on any of the river bars as it has in previous years.

Borton explained that fees collected from campers each year did not cover the costs of maintaining portable toilets and trash service.

"We had to subsidize those services using money from our allocation," he said.

With the trash cans gone, Borton encouraged users to pack out their trash.

"We're counting on people to be responsible and use the sites properly," he said.

Forest Service personnel will continue to monitor the various areas along the Chetco, Winchuck and Rogue rivers throughout the summer, cleaning up trash as needed, Borton said.

As for going to the bathroom, he encouraged people to use the permanent toilet facilities at Loeb State Park and Nook Bar.

A big critic of the decision to close the campgrounds and eliminate trash and toilet services on the Chetco River is Jerry Darbyshire.

Darbyshire worked 30 years for the Forest Service, the last 12 years for the Chetco Ranger District, which merged with the Gold Beach Ranger District in 2004. He retired in October.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "The Chetco is designated as a wild and scenic river. Now you have trash and human waste where people, children, are swimming. It's a health and safety issue."

The river, he added, is know for its healthy fishery and clean water, both of which may be impacted by trash and human waste.

Darbyshire estimated that that fees charged for camping on the Chetco River bars and Little Redwood campground amounted to approximately $30,000 a year, which fell short of covering the costs of maintaining trash and toilet services.

Subsidizing the cost here and in other Forest Service districts is not unusual – the forest service has been doing it for years, he said.

Darbyshire acknowledged the financial challenges the forest service has been and is still facing.

"The budget has been declining for years, and nosedived since I retired," he said. "It's a matter of priorities, and tough decision have to be made."

However, Darbyshire criticized the Forest Service for what he says was a lack of communication with the public about the changes.

"There was no public involvement," he said. "They knew back in November this was happening, but they didn't do anything until right before Memorial Day.

"They could have held meetings and let the public know what they were doing and why. But they didn't do that."

He also thinks that Gold Beach Ranger District officials are favoring the Rogue River area over the Chetco and Winchuck river areas.

"It think there's a real discrepancy between the south end of the county and Gold Beach," Darbyshire said, adding, "I don't think John Borton is as familiar with the Chetco and Winchuck as he is with the Rogue. He may not realize the impacts these decisions are having."

So what would Darbyshire do if he was still working with the forest service?

"I would look at all the campgrounds, perhaps drop some services at the more improved campgrounds along the Rogue before closing campgrounds on the Chetco and Winchuck," he said.

Also, he said, he would look at raising fees, especially at campgrounds along the Rogue River.

Harvey Timeus, who worked for the Chetco Ranger District for since 1971 and retired in 2004, was dismayed by the recent cuts in services.

"In the past, we had several full-time employees picking up trash, emptying toilets and doing law enforcement; now there's nothing," Timeus, who oversaw and did much of that work, said. "The forest service has thrown away 30 years of effort."

The cuts are the result of dwindling funds and that most of the decisions are being made by "upper level" management in Medford, Ore., not at the local level.

Timeus was particularly concerned about public safety because there are less Forest Service people patrolling areas and enforcing the rules. That will be compounded by the Curry County's current budget crises, which may lead to less sheriff's deputies on patrol.

"There's always been a rowdy element," he said, referring to people who disobey laws on national forest property.

And that element, he said, may go unchecked, resulting in more vandalism and disruptions for people peaceably enjoying the forest.

As for the impact of human waste on Brookings' water quality, Brookings Public Works Director John Cowan didn't think there would be much.

The city, he explained, gets its water from an aquifer located about 25 feet below the river bottom and has been naturally filtered of most harmful bacteria.

But, Cowan said, there is a question of the quality of the water in the Chetco River itself, and the ocean in which it empties, come fall, when the first rains wash any human waste into the river.

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