HELENA - The January announcement caught many Montana recreation groups off guard -- the U.S. Forest Service was changing its formula for funding trail maintenance, de-emphasizing miles of wilderness trails while favoring visitor numbers and population centers. That meant increasing maintenance budgets in some more populated regions while lower-population Idaho and Montana put nearly a third of its program budgets on the chopping block.
As Forest Service recreation budgets have fallen in recent years and with a greater proportion going to firefighting, partnerships with recreation groups have become paramount for getting on-the-ground work accomplished. With Region 1 cuts the largest in the country at 30 percent, officials and partners across the region, including on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, are left concerned with how those already leveraged programs will look in the future.
“If we used this kind of model to fund highways we’d be driving on gravel roads between here and Great Falls,” said John Gatchell, Montana Wilderness Association federal lands policy director. “And this is happening at a time when there’s an increasing realization that trails are gold for communities and local economies.”
Funding challenges and strategies
As reported by the Missoulian in February, a regional Forest Service report penned last year painted a daunting fiscal picture for recreation, heritage and wilderness programs. The report notes more than $25 million in deferred maintenance, 10,000 dispersed recreation sites and 28,000 trail miles with declining budgets and staffing.
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest contributed to the report, which Forest Supervisor Bill Avey characterized as strategizing for the future given the resources available rather than a referendum on funding woes. The Helena formally consolidated with the Lewis and Clark last year, in part to reduce administration costs and put more money into individual ranger districts.
“We’re really looking at ways to do things more effectively and (the report) is an attempt to answer the question of how we move ahead,” he said.
With dispersed camping prevalent in the forest, special use permits to issue and facilities, roads and trails to maintain, the forest has already made investments in prioritizing high-use areas, Avey said. Examples include moving toilets to popular areas of dispersed camping to lessen impacts and looking to recreation groups for trail and weed projects.
“We’re blessed to have a lot of great partnerships,” he said.
But even as partners put private money behind maintaining public resources, the Helena-Lewis and Clark has backlogged its share of deferred maintenance.
If the forest were to bring all its campgrounds to today’s standards, it would cost from $800,000 to $1 million, according to Operations Staff Officer Katherine Pinegar. The forest’s more than 2,600 trail miles would require from $3-5 million to address every identified issue, she said.
Pinegar emphasized that a share of the maintained trails were not built by the Forest Service and the figures do not reflect how the forest prioritizes high-use areas with more frequent maintenance. The range in costs is based on whether the work is done by staff or contractors, she said.
The 2.9 million-acre forest will receive about $890,000 in fiscal year 2016 for trail maintenance across all ranger districts, according to spokesman Dave Cunningham. The cuts, phased in over three years, will eventually put the annual budget at about $623,000.
Some trails, such as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, receive some special federal funding but the vast majority are maintained from the general budget.
“Certainly across the forest the level of recreation funding is a challenge,” he said. “One thing is we have to be proactive -- sitting back and doing nothing is not okay because we know how important recreation is to people.
“We’ve tried to reduce some off the top, but slowly you get a slow grinding down for what can be accomplished.”
The 30 percent cut is on top of already reduced budgets from one or two decades ago. That grinding down can be seen both in direct maintenance, such as blading roads less often, and in staffing levels, Cunningham said. He pointed to the Rocky Mountain Ranger District as an example, which ten years ago hired four seasonal maintenance employees. Last year the district hired one.
“So what that means is the remaining staff is working to cover those duties … ultimately we’re not able to deliver the same quality and level of service as in the past,” Cunningham said.
Recreation specialist with the Helena-Lewis and Clark Roy Barkley further explained the cuts and how the forest plans to address them. Funding comes in two pots -- one for maintenance that comes in first, followed by another for big construction projects. The forest plans to shift construction funding to maintenance, allowing the hiring of more trail crews while addressing construction costs in house. The forest will continue seeking additional funding through grants and partnerships, he said.
“We’re faced with reduced budgets yearly but this will be a dramatic change in our funding structure. It’ll definitely affect our larger projects and our staffing, but it’s the approach we’ve taken to absorb that cost,” Barkley said. “It lends itself to a whole series of ripple effects it could have on the program as we have less and less money for recreation.”
Partnerships will continue to play a major role in resource management and it will be critically important to continue building partnerships to keep up with field projects, he said.
Several recreation groups that partner with the Helena-Lewis and Clark say they are already doing as much work as they can, and taking on more will mean more fundraising and staffing.
“It’s interesting they’re calling it a three-year glide path because to me, it looks like a three-year crash course,” said Russ Ehnes of Great Falls, executive director of National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council.
The council relies on recreational trails and off-highway vehicle funding to hire two full-time seasonal employees for the forest. Those employees, and volunteer trail maintenance programs, are what keep many trail systems open and maintained, he said.
“We’ve pretty much hit the extent from that program to hire those people, and the volunteer force becomes more and more difficult to train with less money,” Ehnes said. “It sounds great to say we’ll make up the gap with volunteers but that kind of cut will make it very challenging on a lot of different fronts.”
Among its multiple programs that include apprentice livestock packers and wilderness internships, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation based in Hungry Horse coordinates about 40 projects per year with 350 volunteers clearing about 250 miles of trails. Pending Forest Service cuts has Executive Director Carol Treadwell concerned and looking at potential for increasing her organization’s programming and staffing.
“Because they’re feeling the impact of the 30 percent we also feel that, because in reality it’s our partnership duty to step up and fill in where Forest Service personnel are lacking,” she said. “Unfortunately the foundation is at capacity for number of projects. In order for us to step it up that means more fundraising and looking to our local communities that are passionate about recreation to contribute.”
John Gatchell with the Montana Wilderness Association pointed out that the vast majority of area trails cross national forest lands and draw people from around the world. With big needs but low populations, he now wonders what the threshold will be before the Forest Service loses the manpower to simply coordinate with user groups.
“When you reduce the Forest Service to such a low level, then their capacity to work with partners is in jeopardy,” he said. “I think we had 17 projects last year along he Continental Divide Trail, and I think it’s going well, but we can’t get projects in the pipeline without time from our Forest Service trails’ people. We know that the Forest Service and especially the trails’ people work hard, but we can’t expect them to be miracle workers.”
Connie Long, state chair for Back Country Horsemen of Montana, echoed the concerns over future coordination.
“A 30 percent reduction in the Northern Region trails’ budget will eliminate any capital investment or improvement program for trails,” she said in an email. “Trails may be cut open but they will not be improved, e.g. resource problems corrected.
“This significant reduction in funding will impact Forest Service personnel, leadership and supervision. The result will be an inability to promote or work with volunteers and partnership capabilities and reduce grant application success.”
When asked about Gatchell’s and Long’s concerns, Barkley said that it will be challenging, but recreation staff must find a way to deal with the budget realities and partnerships will be instrumental.
“We can’t afford not to maintain those relationships,” he said.