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The Forest Service is trying to build affordable housing to keep staff in Colorado


The U.S. Forest Service is in charge of millions of acres in Colorado's mountains, but their staff can hardly afford to live there anymore. That's the impetus for a first-in-the-nation housing development on Forest Service land high in the ski resort communities of the Rockies. Colorado Public Radio's Andrew Kenney reports.

ANDREW KENNEY, BYLINE: Evergreen forests streaked with golden aspen groves cling to the steep slopes around the Rocky Mountain town of Dillon. But Forest Service supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams is visiting one of his agency's more mundane properties. It's a depot filled with shipping containers for equipment as well as old sheds and decades-old wooden cabins nestled in the trees. The views of the high country are great, but the place is kind of falling apart.

SCOTT FITZWILLIAMS: It is not the Taj Mahal. It is not the Regis, that's for sure. These are pretty primitive, and the standard, we need to improve it. We're asking a lot for folks to live in this kind of conditions at 9,000 feet elevation in the middle of winters.

KENNEY: It symbolizes a big problem for Fitzwilliams. Facing the choice of exorbitant rent or beat-up housing in these mountain towns, or sometimes both, a lot of job candidates are starting to turn down coveted posts with the Forest Service.

FITZWILLIAMS: People are declining permanent job offers at about 56%. So more than half of the time we offer a job, people are saying, would love to, but I can't afford it. I need housing.

KENNEY: Fitzwilliams says the service doesn't have the money to solve that problem, but they've got something else - lots of land. The Forest Service is about to sign a lease that will transform this hilltop property. It's a collaboration between the federal agency, local governments and a private developer. It'll add nearly 200 affordable housing units to the site. Summit County commissioner Tamara Pogue.

TAMARA POGUE: It'll be the first development in the nation that leases U.S. Forest Service land for affordable housing development.

KENNEY: Teachers, firefighters and other middle-income workers can apply to live here, too. Forest Service land manager Anna Bengtson.

ANNA BENGTSON: And then if we're looking down toward the west on the site, you will see the housing development. So multistory buildings with one-, two- and three-bedroom configurations mixed in with some green space and a community center and public transit and a rec path coming through.

KENNEY: Local governments want to support the Forest Service workforce, which is vital to rural and resort economies, and meet the community's wider housing needs, too. In 2018, Congress agreed to let the agency try this model. The town of Dillon will be the first place that actually happens. Forest supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams stresses these projects cannot happen in the places where you might imagine hunting, skiing, fishing or even logging. It's only allowed at a handful of spots in Fitzwilliams' White River National Forest that the agency has already set aside for stuff like offices and maintenance sheds.

FITZWILLIAMS: It might be 40, 50 acres that we would consider something like this over in - the forest is 2.4 million, so obviously, very small part of it.

KENNEY: Some already want to see that scope expanded. County commissioner Pogue suggests Congress could allow development on Forest Service land that's wooded and yet less than pristine. Maybe it's been hemmed in by roads and development. But Pogue knows that talk of using more federal land for affordable housing could spark a backlash.

POGUE: Some of the toughest fights in Summit County are the ones where you have a need for affordable housing, but there's also a need for open space. And so there's always a tension.

KENNEY: This first Forest Service housing project is scheduled to break ground next summer. Other cities and states are watching closely, waiting to see how this new state and federal partnership plays out in Colorado and just how supportive the public really is.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Kenney in Dillon, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrew Kenney