We saw about a 13% decline in visits to our campgrounds on our three different National Forests in 2008 alone. We have had flat or declining visits since 2004. The causes of the decline include high gas prices (especially this past summer) and children/young people more into electronic entertainment, our area have some factors that are directly impacted by Forest Service decisions of the past.
We have had trailheads and campgrounds closed but no new areas opened. Plus the decline in Forest Service recreation and road monies due to shifting the cost of fighting fires directly on to the Forest Service budget has had a big impact on accessibility. The roads to recreation sites have never been so bad (in my 22 years of work in the National Forests). Roads are being abandoned at an alarming rate. No budget exist for trail maintenance; this year all Forest Service offices had their rec budgets siphoned off to pay for the fires in California.
The Forest Service has their head in the sand (understandable due to budget constraints) on improving campgrounds with electrical hookups, yet this is the single most requested improvement we hear from campers that they desire in their national forests. Our baby-boomer campers have given up the tents for motorhomes and RVs yet still want to experience the outdoors as they have in the past. They want electrical hookups when they come to run their sleep apnea machines, their nebulizers and oxygen concentrators, monitors and microwaves.
The forests in many of my areas are in deplorable condition due to over maturity of the stand more than any other factor. Forests have a life cycle and many of the forests where these camps were located were mature when the camps were built, some 30 to 50 years ago. We can hardly keep up with the dead and dying trees that are over mature and die of natural causes, drought and bug infestations. Some areas where we have camps have over 90% of their trees dead in the surrounding forest due to blister rust and pine beetles. Other areas have had catastrophic blow downs because the trees are too big to withstand the forces of the normal wind cycles in that area. Once one location becomes denuded, adjacent areas are vulnerable. We have no understory of younger trees that are less susceptible to the forces of gale winds (70 to 80 mph with sustained winds of 50 mph). One forest surrounding camps I administer had 40% of its trees blow down in one wind event in 2007. This left us vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire which we experienced in 2008; now this area is mostly denuded and will take 20 to 30 years to regenerate to a "scenic" quality. It does not help that we have a climate of intimidation from environmentalists that sue 100% of logging proposal made by the National Forests here in Montana. This has deterred our Forest Service offices from even proposing the needed logging to keep these old, over-mature forests healthy. I am seeing the demise of 300-year old trees due to their over-mature environment. These over-mature forests with their bare and jack-straw mess of fallen trees are not scenic. Recreating in these areas is hampered by lack of clear trails due to falling trees. There is no possibility of recreating off a trail either.
We, as stewards of the scenic environments of America, need to be vocal in this new administration about the decline in the forests due to the removal of managerial over-site from the Forest Service to untrained judges and environmental groups. The best tool the Forest Service possesses to reduce fire fuel buildup and to improve forest health is logging which also generates jobs and tax dollars for the local community. While we cannot return to the logging level of the 1980's which was probably not sustainable, we cannot afford to remain in the logging moratorium we are now experiencing. The Forest Service was mandated by Congress to spend $700 million every biennium to reduce fuel buildup at the expense of our roads, recreation and law enforcement budgets. Yet in the past, we successfully reduced fuel buildup by selling timber. You do the math; pay to have fuels removed from the forest or have private industry pay (at least most of the cost, if not all) with the resulting savings benefiting District budgets, local community tax base and recreation, law enforcement and roads within our National Forests. This is a solution readily available to the Forest Service that can have a great impact on future visits by the American people to their natural heritage.