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Plan looks at aging forest facilities

Public meeting on Facility Master Plan set from 5:30-7 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Grant County Regional Airport in John Day.

By Richard Hanners

Blue Mountain Eagle

Published on February 15, 2018 2:24PM

Last changed on February 15, 2018 2:59PM

The Aldrich Mountain Lookout on the Malheur National Forest.

Contributed photo/Rex Kamstra

The Aldrich Mountain Lookout on the Malheur National Forest.

The Frazier Lookout on the Malheur National Forest.

Contributed photo/U.S. Forest Service

The Frazier Lookout on the Malheur National Forest.

The Raddue Guard Station on the Malheur National Forest was abandoned about 15 years ago.

Contributed photo/U.S. Forest Service

The Raddue Guard Station on the Malheur National Forest was abandoned about 15 years ago.

The Flagtail Lookout on the Malheur National Forest.

Contributed photo/Rex Kamstra

The Flagtail Lookout on the Malheur National Forest.

The Murderer’s Creek Guard Station on the Malheur National Forest is used as a recreation rental.

Contributed photo/U.S. Forest Service

The Murderer’s Creek Guard Station on the Malheur National Forest is used as a recreation rental.

The message in the Malheur National Forest’s recently issued draft Facility Master Plan is bleak but not unique.

Insufficient funding and accumulating deterioration have created a “national junkyard” within the Forest Service’s portfolio of 40,000 administrative, recreation and research buildings nationwide, according to an InBusiness Magazine article cited by Teresa Dixon, a program manager at Malheur National Forest, in her talk to the Grant County Court Feb. 14.

Deteriorating buildings pose safety risks, with rotting floorboards, collapsing foundations — even swaying lookouts. They also pose health risks, including hantavirus and mold. While much damage is environmental, some is human-caused — including vandalism, graffiti and bullet holes, Dixon noted.

Gloomy finances

Nationwide, the Forest Service has identified 3,374 buildings that it wants to decommission. These buildings need $195 million worth of repairs, while the maintenance bill for all Forest Service buildings is estimated to be $1.1 billion.

Locally, the Malheur National Forest owns 133 fire, administration or other (FAO) buildings and leases two more. Replacement value for these buildings, including guard stations, firefighter housing and lookouts, is estimated to be $36.8 million, while maintenance funding needed to keep them up is $1.1 million.

The forest also has 45 developed recreation sites with 94 associated buildings — mostly toilets. The forest has 31 developed campgrounds, including 21 that charge fees, as well as five recreational rentals, four snow parks and five miscellaneous sites. Replacement value for these sites is estimated at $3.3 million, and funding needed to maintain them is $103,086.

But forest funding available for maintaining FAO and recreation buildings meets only 15 percent and 18 percent of the need, respectively. And this available funding does not address the $3.8 million in deferred maintenance for FAO and $325,148 for recreation buildings on the forest.

These deferred maintenance estimates “appear to be very low and not representative of actual” deferred maintenance, Dixon said. For one thing, the forest’s facilities are surveyed once every five years and must be updated, she noted.

Nationwide, the Forest Service estimates it needs $390 million for annual maintenance but has only $65 million available. The Malheur National Forest has a funding gap of $960,000 for FAO buildings and $303,648 for recreation buildings.

One way to deal with this funding gap could be to raise revenue — such as increasing existing fees or implementing new fees at developed campgrounds. Recreation sites on the Malheur National Forest generated $111,865 in fees, while maintenance costs were $117,470. But occupancy at the forest’s campgrounds ranges from 80 percent in summer and hunting season to zero for other parts of the year. Remoteness is also a factor in driving up maintenance costs.

Some popular sites are subsidizing others, Dixon noted. The forest’s five main sites — Big Creek, Delintment, Idlewild, Magone and Middle Fork — posted a total positive return of $29,264, while 16 other fee campgrounds had a total negative return of $21,031. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the forest’s 18 non-fee campgrounds was $36,853.

While the forest considers options such as decommissioning or changing fees, Dixon noted that two “premier historic sites” must be maintained: the John Day Compound and the Allison Guard Station.

The master plan

The Malheur National Forest is the first in the United States to complete a facilities master plan for recreation buildings. The recently completed draft plan for FAO and recreation buildings was required by the Forest Service, but it’s a guidance document, not a regulatory one, Dixon noted.

“We don’t want to spend limited funds unwisely,” she said.

In 2014, the National Engineering Leadership Team completed a two-year study that looked at the Forest Service’s aging, oversized infrastructure amidst flat or declining budgets. The team came up with 50 strategies in five categories, including increasing revenue through appropriations, fees or rent; improving efficiencies; and reducing inventory.

Local forest offices were told to update facility master plans with financial data, step up the pace of decommissioning and continue to look for ways to obtain additional revenues.

“The goal is a sustainable infrastructure,” Deputy Forest Supervisor Ryan Nehl told the county court. “Every year the maintenance gap grows. We need to be proactive. We need to identify buildings we can do without.”

A recent report for the Malheur National Forest by two retired Forest Service engineers raised a number of issues:

• The forest “has more recreation sites than they can operate and maintain with the funds they receive.”

• Insufficient maintenance funding will continue to drive up the deferred maintenance backlog to where “the buildings will suffer.”

• There is no money to eliminate or reduce the $600,000 in deferred maintenance for recreation buildings.

• The gap in available versus needed maintenance funding “continues to expand into the future.”

• “Fully decommissioning or increasing fees on selective sites is far from a complete solution.”

Alternatives considered by the forest include taking down buildings, letting them “melt in place” or selling them. Private parties who buy forest buildings must remove them from the site — acquiring the underlying land would create an inholding, which requires approval from a reluctant Congress, Dixon said.

Some buildings could be converted into recreation rentals, some sites could be used for dispersed camping after decommissioning and some campgrounds could be hosted by concessionaires as a fee site.

“We don’t want to level any buildings without checking our options,” Nehl said.

Buildings over 50 years old with historic significance must be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office for possible listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

In any case, some sites have special value to locals and there will be strong feelings about the plan, Dixon noted. Forest staff have been collaborating with stakeholders and meeting with specialists, and they want to take public input.

The forest will hold a public meeting on the Facility Master Plan from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20, at the Grant County Regional Airport in John Day. A meeting will be held at the Harney County Senior Center two days later. Comments on the plan will be accepted through March 23.

The draft plan and comment form are available at the Malheur National Forest website. For information, Teresa Dixon can be contacted at teresaldixon@fs.fed.us.


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