Outdoor industry mulls wildfire impacts to recreation

Thursday , August 14, 2014 - 5:07 PM

SALT LAKE CITY -- Wildfires have gained force over the last decade, and the recreation industry is looking to cull its impacts in their territory.

At this year’s Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City, concerned parties gathered to discuss the issue and how it’s evolving. One of those voices included the U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary, Robert Bonnie, whose department houses one of the largest public lands management agencies, the U.S. Forest Service.

The land it manages draws millions each year for recreation, but it also has become increasingly prone to catastrophic fire.

“The problem is that staff is diminishing, and the resources we have to do all those things that support you guys is diminishing as well,” Bonnie said at the Outdoor Retailer Market. “Yes, we’re in a difficult fiscal environment in Washington. Yes, budgets are essentially flat there, but that’s not the only issue. The other issue is, obviously, fire.”

In recent years, many Western states surrounding Utah have grappled with mega flames. New Mexico had two consecutive record-breaking fires in 2011 and 2012. Colorado had its most destructive fire year in 2012, when two separate wildfire devoured over 600 homes. The next year saw its most destructive single fire in state history, which destroyed over 500 homes. In Arizona, 2013 also brought the Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters. It was the highest wildland firefighter death toll since 1933.

Utah has seen its share of wildfire as well, although none quite as devastating. As land management agencies like the U.S. Forest Service focus their energy on fire management, recreation in places like could still feel Utah the burn.

“(With) budgetary pressures in Washington at the same time fire risk is rising,” Bonnie said, “there’s less room for all those other things critical to the Forest Service mission.”

Bonnie provided some numbers to illustrate the point.



Over the last 15 years, the Forest Service has spent 67 percent less on facilities and 46 percent less on road repair. He said 14 percent less is spent on trails and 12 percent less goes to recreation programs. The agency has shuffled around its staff, doubling it on the fire side and losing 35 percent of employees for things like visitor services, permitting and management. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service had to “borrow” an additional $500 million to keep up with a particularly catastrophic fire season. The year before, it needed another $440 million.

“Every time we spend more and more on fire, we have to crank the line up a little more to fill the fire suppression budget,” Bonnie said. “That’s money that came out of forest management, forest restoration, recreation, research, state forestry assistance … a lot of the stuff you guys care about.”

Fires that occur locally, large and small, can have local consequences to the outdoor and recreation industries as well.

“I liken it to, If there’s no ice to play on, you can’t play hockey,” said Jon Schwedler, head of communications for the Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests Project.

Schwedler is based in Sacramento, Cali., and saw the impacts of fire to recreation firsthand with last summer’s Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park.

“I lost opportunities to go fishing due to smoke from the Rim Fire,” he said. “I had a deer unit that I had a (hunting) permit for, and it got burned over, so it’s not worth hunting there. These are all the various ways this affects us.”

In Utah, outdoor recreation drives the state’s tourism industry. According to the State of Utah Outdoor Recreation Vision Report, that tourism spending amounted to $6.87 billion and generated $890 million in tax revenue in 2011. The outdoor industry contributes $5.8 billion to the economy, with $4 billion in annual retail sales.

Steve Barker, conservationist and founder of Eagle Creek Travel Gear, said wildfire threats often make nearby outdoor industry revenues evaporate. He experienced this personally in the 1970s when a nearby California fire caused his small-scale climbing and hiking gear shop to go out of business.

While he said the flames didn’t burn his store or the immediate area, word of the fire got out through the news and tourists cancelled their trips. Barker said the outdoor industry needs to work to better communicate recreation options. Once the trip is planned, the family’s ready  and the camper’s packed, those travelers often don’t have enough information on alternatives when their campsite is suddenly closed due to fire danger. 

“My biggest fear, or our industry’s biggest fear, is that they decided to go to the beach, or worse yet, do a staycation in the backyard and buy a big screen TV to watch football instead of going out into our national forest,” Barker said.

The President’s 2015 budget proposal provides some solutions for the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire funding problems. It uses FEMA’s disaster cap as a model.

These emergency funds used for natural disasters like hurricanes and flooding could be used to fight fires instead of dipping into the Forest Service budget. Other lawmakers argue the fire funds should be found with cuts elsewhere in the Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior budgets.

Meanwhile, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced earlier this month the Forest Service is set to burn through its firefighting budget by the end of August.

“I think we all need to understand, you can either pay us now or you can pay us later,” Bonnie said. “The situation as it’s working now isn’t sustainable.”

Regardless of what happens with lawmakers, it seems with a warming climate and past management practices, large wildfires in the West are the new normal. The fire season is up to 80 days longer than it was 30 years ago in some areas, and fires now are 4-5 times larger on average than they were in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the Forest Service spent around 13 percent of its budget trying to control fire. Now, it consumes nearly half.

For their part, movers and shakers with the outdoor industry appear to agree they must find a way to divert their entrepreneurial talents into further assisting the Forest Service in its mission to provide recreation opportunities while also helping with fire prevention.

“As we all know recreation economy is growing, but at the same time the Forest Service (is) cutting its budget,” Barker said. “It’s going the wrong way. We need to step up as an industry.”

Partnerships have been a tool in trail maintenance and resource management for decades, and it’s becoming ever more important to build more, especially when it comes to fire prevention efforts.

“We always leave it to someone else to solve this problem, but if you’re an outfitter or retailer in a community that depends on this, you shouldn’t be waiting for an answer to come from Washington or something to happen,” Barker said. “Fires are not an ‘if,’ they’re a ’when’ in the West.”

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