Thompson Divide

The Thompson Divide is among the areas in the 400,000 acres that would be set aside by the proposed Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act.

You don’t have to be a loose-spending liberal to see that it pays to invest for high returns. But unfortunately our federal government is loath to recognize a good deal when it has one.

Take Angus King, the former governor and moderate independent senator from Maine, who crusades against partisanship.

“The federal government can’t work if there’s nobody to answer the phone,” he said in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee meeting.

The latest victim is the great outdoors.

Recreation pays huge fees to use the national forests, about $65 million a year, $37 million from skiing alone (about $27 million from Colorado). Yet, in order to make changes or improvements to respond to the demands of growth and popularity, resorts can wait months and sometimes years to get inspections and approvals.

The U.S. Forest Service spends only 5% of its budget meeting the needs of outdoor recreation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While staffing for the National Forest Service has shrunk by 20% since 2010, skier visits grew by 30%, according to the Lakewood-based National Ski Area Association. 

Colorado’s senators — Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet — think that’s raw deal. They have a bill that would make sure up to half the money generated in any national forest is used for government services in the same national forest.

That means those national forests that bring in the tourists — Colorado's White River National Forest leads that category — will have more staff to do inspections and reviews.

“When projects are delayed and timelines (are) uncertain, ski areas, like all businesses, find it harder to invest significant resources,” Brendan McGuire, the vice president of public affairs for Vail Resorts, said in the Senate committee meeting.

As the committee talked about the bill that helps skiers, Sen. Joe Manchin, a ranking Democrat on the committee, called Gardner's bill common sense, though had to be reminded that most of the nation's public lands are in the West, as he prattled on about the opportunities to ride an inflatable tube down a river in his home state, West Virginia.

It provides us in the West a warm feeling to hear politicians talk up their love of the wild. And like everybody else who visits a forest, they just don't like to pay much for that pleasure. Action speaks louder than words, and the action is where the money’s at.

Here some action: Last year the Trump administration put $240 million into recreation, heritage and wilderness programs for the National Forest Service. That’s $22.6 million less than the year before.

A cut? “The Forest Service will maximize the return of funding investments by increasing volunteerism, improving customer service, increasing partnerships and working to ‘right size' recreation assets,” the agency explained in its budget request. Volunteers instead of staff, sure, that should work out just great.

Meanwhile, firefighting and fire management are a bottomless pit: $2.5 billion, a hike of $190 million.

Gardner is the driver behind the bill to help ski areas, but notably it's one of the few times Democrats haven't rushed out to impugn his motives, because he's up for reelection next year. Gardner also led a bipartisan coalition that tried, in vain, to pass the Land and Water Conservation Fund for national parks, refuges and forests this year. Fellow Republicans provided $524 million of the $900 million the program needs, so Democrats called Gardner complicit. (No, it doesn't make sense.)

Gardner, however, has failed to sign on to the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act to set aside about 400,000 acres in the state as federally lands, including about 80,000 acres for recreation and conservation management.

What you won’t find in the bill is a way to pay for taking on more land, when politicians can't agree to pay to manage the land the federal government already has. Further, the bill would "generally withdraw that land from timber production and entry under hardrock mining laws and mineral and geothermal leasing," as well as "authorize the appropriation of $10 million for the proposed Camp Hale National Historic Landscape." 

The legislation is dead on arrival in the Republican-led Senate.

If lawmakers from either party really wanted to blow back our hair, they’d knock it off with the political parlor games and Band-Aid bills.

Instead, they could stop blaming each other and agree on the things they actually agree on: taking care of our chronically underfunded national treasures. The drill-baby-drill right could stick a sock in it, and the left could tone down the rhetoric, as well. We could go to the bargaining table instead of the courtroom, for a change.

King, the Maine independent, wasn't interested in handouts to wealthy resorts that serve wealthy skiers in the Gardner-Bennet bill.

All of the money would go to government services, not ski companies, McGuire assured him.

“We can’t be a healthy industry without a healthy partner,” he explained to King.

And therein lies the justice for those who constantly clamor for shrinking government, to cut regulators if not regulations.

“You can’t bullyrag bureaucrats and then complain that permits aren’t being granted in a timely fashion,” King warned.

Ultimately voters might not get the government they need, but they get the government they deserve.

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