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Trail volunteers

Caryn Rouse, left, and Renee Therriault, right, hold onto a tarp as a gust of wind blasts the cooking area of their group’s camp on North Fork Dupuyer Creek in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The group of volunteers spent several days helping to clear trails in the area in 2016.

The U.S. Forest Service hopes to double the workload of its volunteer helpers as it attacks a backlog of trail maintenance largely in Montana.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex’s 3,200 miles of trail arrived No. 1 on a Forest Service priority list for trail work last Friday. So did the Continental Divide Scenic Trail; its largest segment passes through Montana. And the Central Idaho Wilderness Complex listing includes a chunk of the Bitterroot National Forest slopping across the Montana-Idaho border.

But no money was attached to any of these priority areas. Instead, the Forest Service is following the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act of 2016, which commands the agency “to increase trail maintenance by volunteers and partners by 100 percent” within five years of enactment.

“The fundamental problem is the Forest Service is underfunded,” said Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation Director Carol Treadwell. “They’re probably frustrated too by an act passed by Congress outside of their advice, and now they need to implement it when what they need is funding to fill the gaps. Instead they get mandate from Congress to find more volunteers out there.”

BMWF does exactly that, providing volunteers for about 40 backcountry repair projects a year for the past 20 years. But it’s looking for clarification on how the workload will play out.

"It appears if we want our trails on our public lands open, we have to go out and do it,” Treadwell said. “But we’re about at capacity for volunteers we can put on the ground and how many projects the partners can coordinate with us.”

The bill noted that the Forest Service had a $314 million backlog in trail maintenance work, along with another $210 million in annual maintenance, capital improvement and operational needs.

“Federal budget limitations require solutions to National Forest System trail maintenance issues that make more efficient use of existing resources,” the bill text stated. “Volunteers, partners and outfitters and guides play an important role in maintaining National Forest System trails, and a comprehensive strategy is needed to ensure that volunteers and partners are used as effectively as possible.”

The strategy told the agency to “address the barriers to increased volunteerism.” It also advised the Forest Service to study using fire crews for trail maintenance. And it offered to offset all or part of the land-use permit fees charged to outfitters or guides by the value of the work they donated.

Montana senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, as well as then-Rep. Ryan Zinke, all co-signed the legislation.

The Wilderness Society was one of many organizations that called for the bill and supported its passage. TWS wilderness campaigns director Paul Spitler said the prioritization didn’t mean the Forest Service was leaving all its trails work to volunteers.

“It tells the Forest Service: ‘We know you don’t have enough money and you have to prioritize,'” Spitler said. “So it makes sense to ask the public what is most important for trail maintenance and let’s put them to work in a strategic way. Volunteers are an important part, but not the only part of the strategy.”

However, Spitler added that President Donald Trump’s proposed Forest Service budget doesn’t help the agency do its part. Its recommendation for the Forest Service includes an 84 percent reduction in trails maintenance and construction money, a total elimination of the Legacy Roads and Trails fund for emergency repairs in sensitive areas, and a 59 percent reduction in the roads maintenance and construction line item.

The Forest Service budget justification also states, “At the requested funding level, the agency will focus on maintaining priority trail facilities and a staff level to provide for public safety. The agency will reduce work to implement recommendations in the National Forest System Trail Stewardship Act of 2016 and the agency’s 2017 National Trail Strategy. Some trails may have access restricted due to unaddressed safety or maintenance issues.”

In a news release, the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said pressure from wildfire funding was sapping the Forest Service’s ability to maintain its responsibilities.

“The trail maintenance backlog was years in the making with a combination of factors contributing to the problem, including an outdated funding mechanism that routinely borrows money from programs, such as trails, to combat ongoing wildfires,” Perdue stated. “This borrowing from within the agency interferes with other vital work, including ensuring that our more than 158,000 miles of well-loved trails provide access to public lands, do not harm natural resources, and, most importantly, provide safe passage for our users.”

Forest Service Region 1 spokesman David Smith said trails managers intend to use the act as a better way of arranging existing partnerships with private organizations. Last year the region saw 454,737 hours of service by just under 6,000 participants.

“We realize there’s a finite number of people who volunteer to go out and work on trails,” Smith said. “This is a chance to look outside the box, and find different ways to get the work done. We’re not just asking people to double down on their efforts. We have much greater opportunity to leverage resources from outside the region, now that they’ve been designated as priority.”

That’s already happening in places like the Bob Marshall. In 2017, BMWF deployed 336 volunteers from 19 states on 46 projects. Working usually a week at a stint, those private citizens improved 180 miles of trail, cut 3,061 downed trees and treated 17 acres of noxious weeds. The accomplishment was valued at $440,128.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.