July 6, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
Lack of Funding for Ranger Services Threatens Wilderness Resources
Campers, hikers and fishermen who head for the backcountry of the Swan Valley this summer will find that their favorite trails and campsites are not as well maintained as in past years. Land managers are unable to fully fund backcountry ranger contracts this year. Trail openings will be slower because rangers are only working two days a week.
"The public is going to be asking why the trails aren't all open," Mission Mountains Wilderness ranger Kari Gunderson said. Gunderson and other backcountry rangers will be spending fewer hours in the Mission Mountains Wilderness and along the Swan Front this summer, unless the Forest Service and the Swan Ecosystem Center, a non-profit group at Condon, Montana, can find more funding for their contracts.
Individuals interested in helping to change this situation are encouraged to write to their Congressmen and to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and ask for more money for recreation and wilderness budgets. Also, there is still opportunity for private citizens to contribute money for the rangers. People can send donations of any size to the Swan Ecosystem Center, 6887 Highway 83, Condon MT 59826. Donors should specify that they want the money to be used for wilderness and backcountry ranger contracts. These private donations will be matched equally by Forest Service dollars.
Without such funding, and the attention of backcountry rangers to local areas, favorite trails and campsites will continue to show signs of neglect and deterioration, reducing the quality of the wilderness experience for backcountry users.
Although Forest Service funding has been slim since 1996, ranger contracts were more fully funded between 1996 and 1999 thanks to private contributions received through the Swan Ecosystem Center. In 1996, when the Forest Service was first unable to provide adequate funding for ranger contracts, Swan Valley citizens donated enough money to keep the rangers working. According to Anne Dahl, Swan Ecosystem Center executive director, the 1996 funding effort was basically a stop-gap measure.
"We hoped the Forest Service would receive adequate funding for recreation and wilderness projects the following year," Dahl said. However, that kind of funding didn't materialize and, from 1997 through 1999, rangers continued to receive half of their funding from private foundations via the Swan Ecosystem Center. Unfortunately, this year the Swan Ecosystem Center was unable to obtain funding from private foundations. Dahl explained that these foundations are reluctant to continue to provide money for ranger services that have historically been funded by the Forest Service.
Forest Service funding nationwide has decreased steadily at the District level while Washington office spending has increased. According to Swan Lake District Ranger Chuck Harris, the budget for the Flathead National Forest was reduced by over $1 million each year for the past five years. In the same time period, the Washington Office budget increased by 300%.
"The buzz word is 'disconnect,'" Swan Lake District Ranger Chuck Harris explained, as people at the top of the Forest Service are losing their connections to the people responsible for getting work done on the ground. "When you are working at the District level, and your heart is supporting the work that needs to be done on the ground, it's difficult to communicate with people in Washington. A lot of the Forest Service employees there have never worked at the District level. They don't have that connection," Harris said. "One of the big reasons that the Forest Service exists is to provide services to the public - to open trails and keep campsites clean. We're missing the boat when we're not doing what's on the ground," Harris explained.
Wilderness and backcountry rangers throughout the Northwest are noticing the change in the way wilderness and recreation programs are funded. "It's a numbers game and the western wilderness areas are really suffering because of that," Kari Gunderson explained. She pointed out that wilderness areas adjacent to metropolitan regions are receiving funding, while backcountry areas like those in Western Montana are overlooked. Funding, she said, seems to be based on the number of visitors that frequent certain areas, instead of being allocated based on what's good for the land. Gunderson fears that the lack of funding may lead to resource damage. People who don't understand the uniqueness of wild places may unknowingly damage fragile ecosystems. She explained that one of the tasks of backcountry rangers is to contact visitors and provide wilderness education. Trail openings will be much slower, and people may be tempted to hike around downed logs rather than over them, creating a potential for trail erosion. Garbage at campsites may pile up, acting as a bear attractant. Some facilities, such as winter-damaged signs and bridges, may go unrepaired. Without ranger services, there will be resource damage in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, Gunderson concluded.
Timeline of Ranger Services
The following timeline gives a brief overview of the history of backcountry rangers in the Swan Valley. Since 1996, the Forest Service has been unable to adequately fund Wilderness and Backcountry Ranger services in the Mission Mountains Wilderness and along the Swan Front. Between 1997 and 1999, Swan Ecosystem Center helped keep the rangers working by asking for additional funding from private citizens and foundations. However, private foundations that donated money in 1997, 1998 and 1999 are not providing funding for ranger contracts this year.
1920s - 30s: Federal government begins administering trail construction and maintenance programs in he South Fork of the Flathead River Valley Primitive Area (now Bob Marshall Wilderness) and in the Mission Mountains Primitive Area in the Swan Valley to provide access for fire suppression.
1940: Bob Marshall Wilderness designated by USDA. Trails management responsibilities begin to be divided between several national forests. Flathead National Forest continues to administer trails along the Swan Front in the Swan Valley.
1940s - 70s: Flathead National Forest employs backcountry rangers and trail crews along the Swan Front and in the Mission Mountains Primitive Area.
1975: Mission Mountains Wilderness established by Congress. First wilderness rangers employed.
1984 - 1995: Forest Service contracts for ranger services in the Mission Mountains Wilderness (rather than employing rangers). These are the first and only contracts of this kind in the Forest Service.
1996: Forest Service terminates wilderness ranger contracts in the Mission Mountains Wilderness due to inadequate funding. Private citizens donate $12,000, matching Forest Service funds for a total of $24,000 to pay for ranger services in the Mission Mountains Wilderness this year.
1997-98-99: Private foundations donate $20,000 each year to Swan Ecosystem Center specifically for backcountry ranger services. SEC uses this money to match Forest Service funds to pay wilderness and backcountry rangers in the Mission Mountains Wilderness and also along the Swan Front. SEC enters into cost/share agreement with the Forest Service to administer these contracts.
2000: Forest Service offers a portion of the funds for ranger contracts but SEC is unable to raise full matching funding. Private foundations are not willing to continue funding wilderness ranger services contracts.
Swan Ecosystem Center is a nonprofit, 501 (c)(3) citizens group in Northwest Montana engaging the public in ecosystem management and education. Among several other projects, Swan Ecosystem Center supports the wilderness and backcountry ranger program for the Mission Mountains Wilderness and the Swan Range by raising public funds to match with Forest Service dollars. The backcountry ranger funding is administered through a Challenge Cost/Share Agreement with the Flathead National Forest. The total citizen share needed for Year 2000 is $20,000. Contributions are tax deductible, and may be forwarded to:
Swan Ecosystem Center
6887 Highway 83
Condon, Montana 59826
For more information:
Ph. 406-754-3137, FAX 406-754-2965, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.