Report: 3 of 4 U.S. Forest Service trails fail to meet standards

2013-07-08T07:30:00Z 2014-10-19T08:06:56Z Report: 3 of 4 U.S. Forest Service trails fail to meet standards missoulian.com

A new federal report says only one-quarter of U.S. Forest Service trails meet the agency’s own standards as it attempts to catch up with a $524 million maintenance deficit.

Volunteer groups like the Backcountry Horsemen of America and The Wilderness Society have stepped into that gap, but they worry the backlog will drive folks out of the woods.

“We found problems with trail maintenance was undermining support for wilderness and public land in general,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns for The Wilderness Society. “They go there and find trails aren’t maintained, and they can’t access places they want to get to. That’s not what people expect when they go visit public lands. We need to get a handle on this problem and figure out some solutions. If we don’t, we’re in danger of losing the public.”

Those two groups petitioned members of Congress to look into the matter, since the last similar study was done in 1989. U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Jim Moran, D-Va., officially requested the study.

“With the important exception of maintaining forest health to combat wildfires and insect kill, there is no other activity in the Forest Service’s portfolio that is more important than ensuring the public’s access to our forests and wilderness areas,” Lummis said in a statement, where she also described the trails maintenance program as “held together by Band-Aids and bailing wire.”

The Government Accountability Office report released on June 27 found the Forest Service did some maintenance on 37 percent of its 158,000 miles of trail in fiscal 2012. But it estimated another $314 million in deferred maintenance remained on the to-do list, along with $210 million in unfinished annual maintenance, capital improvements and operations. In its recommendations, the GAO called for closer work with volunteers to get projects done.

That’s already a working assumption for groups like the Backcountry Horsemen, according to Montana state chairman Mark Himmel.

“We asked the Forest Service for a punch list of places that needed work,” Himmel said after returning from a brush-clearing trip on the Continental Divide Trail near Rogers Pass. “The guy said throw a dart at the map. Wherever it hits needs work. We’re a maintenance organization. We pick up the slack and make it work. We know there’s budget cutbacks. I don’t know where it’s going to go, except to just keep at it.”

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That’s the marching order for Gary Edson at the Forest Service Region 1 trails coordinator office. He spent five days with the GAO team last year working on the report.

“From a user standpoint, recreation is where people look at the agency – it’s where our face is,” Edson said. “But for us as an agency, the land is for multiple uses and we’re just one use. You have oil and gas demands, range use demands, timber demands – recreation is just one of those uses.”

Edson said Region 1 trail crews are able to do regular opening and clearing work on about one-third of the network considered “main line,” or most popular. The other two-thirds gets attention on a rotating basis. But he’s also dealing with consecutive budget reductions.

“In 2013, we have a 17 percent decrease in our trails budget,” Edson said. “I lost 7 percent last year and I’m expecting another 10 percent next year. In three years I’ve lost a third of my funding, but I haven’t lost a third of the trail system. So we turn to the public as volunteers and stewards to help maintain and provide those services.”

But even volunteer work costs money. Before Himmel can mount a Backcountry Horsemen work party, the Forest Service has to get them certified in first aid, chain saw use and other necessary skills. If the project takes place in designated wilderness, that may require training in traditional tools like cross-cut saws. The agency also often provides food, fuel and other supplies for the volunteers to use.

“There still is a cost to supporting those organizations,” said Region 1 volunteer use and service coordinator Joni Packard. “We have interim agreements with some foundations like the Backcountry Horsemen, where they may supervise volunteers for us. Other times, Forest Service staff may be on the ground with crews.”

The GAO report identified that as a potential reason for the maintenance backlog. It noted “certain agency policies and procedures complicate trail maintenance efforts, such as the agency’s lack of standardized training in trails field skills, which limits agency expertise. Further, while volunteers are important to the agency’s trail maintenance efforts, managing volunteers can decrease the time officials can spend performing on-the-ground maintenance.”

Nationally, the Forest Service allocated $80 million to trail maintenance in 2013. At the same time, it may spend seven times that amount fighting forest fires, often by transferring funds from other accounts like trail maintenance. That won’t change until Congress designates hard funding increases for recreation, according to The Wilderness Society’s Spitler.

“This is something that doesn’t cost a lot and provides a huge benefit to the American people,” Spitler said. “This is the July Fourth weekend. People from across the country will be heading out to enjoy their public land, and the way they get there is the trail system.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

Copyright 2015 missoulian.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(9) Comments

  1. FredricLRice
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    FredricLRice - July 08, 2013 3:42 pm
    Yeah, kind of a shame that irresponsible people have to waste valueable USFS employee time, isn't it?
  2. FredricLRice
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    FredricLRice - July 08, 2013 3:38 pm
    Edson notes in part, "In three years I’ve lost a third of my funding, but I haven’t lost a third of the trail system."

    What also is happening is more and more people are taking to the National Forests to escape from oppressive heat in an economic arena where fewer and fewer people have money to purchase air conditioning electricity or gasoline to escape the heat.

    Even as budgets get eliminated or cut seriously, the sheer numbers of people taking to recreation areas continues to climb. The inability to handle trash and toilets is the first difficulty to address, hiking trail repairs and maintenance somewhat takes a lower priority among volunteers who are willing to swamp out toilets and collect and haul trash.

    I don't see any expected improvements in funding any time soon while at the same time all of us who hike, bike, backpack, climb, fish in the forest are seeing increases in the number of people escaping from the cities below.
  3. FredricLRice
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    FredricLRice - July 08, 2013 3:29 pm
    In the Angeles National Forest, within the San Gabriel River Ranger District of the U. S. Forest Service, the hiking trail maintenance team responsible is the San Gabriel Mountains Trailbuilders, without question the most dedicated trail mainteance volunteer organization in the State of California.

    If anybody wants to join the trail maintenance efforts, there is always work that needs helping hands. Send email to me at Fred@SGMTrailbuilders.org and I will forward to you information about how to participate in the effort.
  4. Mike McCormack
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    Mike McCormack - July 08, 2013 1:19 pm
    When mountain bikers enter the dialogue with meaningful input regarding equal access they're told by Wilderness groups that public land protection "isn't about recreational use." Mr. Spitler's comments seem to suggest that that statement gets trotted out only during the mountain biking conversation and that the reality is something quite different.

    Over the past 30 years the mountain bike stewardship community has established a best-in-class resume regarding land protection, trail building and educating their own ranks regarding an enhanced stewardship ethos. They've proven time and time again that when included in the policy decisions that impact public lands they're willing, able and incredibly capable of earning a seat at the table. They've done it on the business ends of shovels, McLeod's and Pulaskis, and they've also done it in Washington.

    May I humbly suggest that a part of the answer lies in courting that group? Our backcounty isn't so rich in stewards that it can reasonably afford to turn those concerned about its welfare away, especially when ideologically, the vast majority of hikers, cyclists and equestrians are in almost identical alignment, their only differentiating feature being their mode of travel.
  5. Matthew Koehler
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    Matthew Koehler - July 08, 2013 11:47 am
    Let's not forget to add this big-ticket maintenance backlog with Forest Service trails to the growing $8.4 billion maintenance and reconstruction backlog the Forest Service current has on it’s 380,000+ miles of roads (and the fact that the Forest Service only receives 20% of the annual maintenance funding it needs to maintain its existing 380,000+ mile road system to environmental and safety standards). Now you start to get a sense just how far the Forest Service (and Congress) has dug the Forest Service’s backlogged maintenance hole.
  6. montanamuralist
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    montanamuralist - July 08, 2013 10:36 am
    Thankful there are private groups who help maintain trails. From the funding point of view if we can't get Congress to fund decent health care for folks without dictating religious beliefs and moral values, face facts when it comes to deficit spending etc and pay homage to the anti government wing of their party, how would you expect they w23ill care much about trail maintenance. They can't even figure out how to fix the sequester. Answer is to blaze our own trail I guess. In more ways that just the wilderness.
  7. elkguy
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    elkguy - July 08, 2013 9:21 am
    They seem to have plenty of money to drive around in brand new trucks and harass people for cutting firewood too far from the road, etc.
  8. Deadwolf
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    Deadwolf - July 08, 2013 8:01 am
    Not too hard to figure out why. In the past FS employees spent much of theirr time outdoors, trail work, campground work, sleeping while on the job (I know first hand, I caught them)etc. Now, they spend their time sitting behind a computer. The agency is overrun with "greenies" who would not know one end of a Pulaski from the other. The agency needs a complete overhaul but that will never happen. So, if trails need fixing ask for private volunteers.
  9. notarichman
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    notarichman - July 08, 2013 7:52 am
    Hmm, I am volunteering to clear two trails and have already cleared most of both...still have a ways to go to finish them.
    the forest service rep. i talked with said nothing about training me for first aid, equipment use, etc.
    However, I asked about the standards and he gave me an odd answer -- the trail is marked as an atv trail and he wanted it cleared 20' wide and 10' tall, all limbs removed from the trail. He said this was so a jeep could travel it. since when does a jeep need 20' width and 10' height?
    I told him that i don't have capability of cutting it that big.
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