Forest merger underway in Kamas |

Forest merger underway in Kamas

Patrick Parkinson, Of the Record staff

Wildfires are incinerating the budget for the U.S. Forest Service and in the next three years the Uinta and Wasatch-Cache National Forests will merge into one.

More than 20 jobs could be impacted, including the position now filled by Kamas District Ranger Cathy Kahlow.

"It will affect the Kamas and Heber Ranger Districts because they will be merged into one district with the main office in Heber," Kahlow said in a telephone interview. "I’m concerned for people to make sure they can find other jobs."

A district ranger post on the Wasatch Back would go away, she lamented.

"One of us will probably need to find another job," Kahlow said. "But when you think about it as a taxpayer, we’re only 15 miles from each other. It would be the Heber-Kamas District and the main office would most likely be in Heber."

The bulk of visits to national forests in Utah occur in the Uinta and Wasatch-Cache, she explained.

"The Uinta/Wasatch-Cache is a low hanging fruit in the sense that their headquarters is in Salt Lake and Provo and it makes more sense for those forests to combine," Kahlow said.

The U.S. Forest Service is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and oversees about 1.2 million acres of land in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest, which includes rugged slopes in the Uinta Mountains, the Wasatch Front and the Monte Cristo, Bear River and Stansbury ranges. The Uinta National Forest lies adjacent to the southern edge of the Wasatch-Cache and was the first national forest in Utah, the U.S. Forest Service Web site states.

"It takes away funding for other programs when we have large fires," Kahlow said, adding that more houses have been built near the edge of federal land. "It makes it more volatile when you have homes that are fire-prone."

At the same time that operation costs in the forests have increased, the money allocated by Congress for the Forest Service has dropped.

"It costs more to dump Dumpsters. It costs more to fix things. It costs more to have electricity," Kahlow said.

But members of the public won’t notice effects from merging the Uinta and Wasatch-Cache, she claimed.

"Our effort is to not reduce public service or amenities," Kahlow said. "We’re trying in many other ways to reduce costs and positions."

Some staffers at the district office in Kamas have already sought other employment, she said.

Instead of layoffs, Kahlow said she expects attrition and retirement to account for most of the job reduction.

"People are either taking other jobs or moving on if they know their job is going to be affected," she said. "We’ll see a lot of changes internally over the next year."

The annual budget for the Wasatch-Cache National Forest is roughly $16 million, said Dave Myers, Wasatch-Cache deputy forest supervisor.

"I get a little nervous about meeting the public’s expectations," Myers said in a telephone interview. "You can’t help but get a little nervous when you reduce the number of staff."

In the 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service used 15 percent of its budget to fight wildfires. Today firefighting costs consume almost 50 percent of the overall budget, Myers said.

With more than a million visitors each year, "the Wasatch-Cache is one of the big five recreation forests in the United States," Myers said.

"The budget associated with fire is really our biggest national issue," he said.

Consolidating key staff positions should result in significant savings, Myers explained.

"For major staff positions, we’re putting two into one," he said.

Kahlow stopped short of blaming the consolidation of the forests on costs for fighting the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Obviously, the war in Iraq is a big ticket when it comes to national budgets, and we’re probably not going to see a lot of growth in the forest service budget," Myers said.

Still, the Forest Service intends to continue staffing that Kamas District office after the merger.

"People can come in and get maps and ask questions," Kahlow said. "There will be a public service information place."

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