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.”
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.”