Regardless of whether you hike, ride horses, mountain bike or prefer off-highway vehicles, we all depend on a well-funded and well-maintained trail system in Montana.
Trails are the arteries that connect us to our public lands, state parks and our communities. They provide access to our favorite fishing holes, special hunting grounds and secret camping spots. Montana’s frontcountry and backcountry trails are essential parts of Montana’s outdoor way of life and they have been for generations.
That’s why our coalition of motorized and non motorized trails users is sounding the alarm. The Montana Trails Coalition has just released a new report showing that demand for trails in Montana far exceeds the federal funding that is currently available to maintain and improve them. We spend far less on building and maintaining trails than we did 30 years ago.
The conclusion is unanimous among trail advocates — it’s high time that Montana had its own state-led trails program to help communities and stewardship groups reinvest in our trails and protect our outdoor way of life.
The data shows the current way of doing things just isn’t working. Our new report, Montana Trails in Crisis, analyzed the past five years of trail grant data from the Recreational Trails Program, which is the primary pot of money that trail organizations leverage to build and maintain Montana’s trail systems.
Those numbers show a persistent federal funding shortage that’s kneecapping maintenance efforts, stifling trail enhancement projects, and limiting our ability to meet the needs of the public.
Since 2014, we have left an unacceptable number of local trail projects unfunded across the state. In just the last five years, 113 hiking trail projects, 96 bicycle trail projects, 53 shovel-ready motorized projects (four-wheel, ATV, snowmobile or motorcycle), 50 equestrian trail projects, and 47 cross-country skiing trail projects have all been shelved due to inadequate funding.
Meanwhile, the maintenance backlog is growing. Since 1980, the United States Congress has cut Forest Service trail funding by 32 percent, leading to a whopping $296 million maintenance backlog. The results are easy to see — badly eroded and overgrown trails, missing or unreadable signage, broken corrals, and unmaintained trailheads have become all too common.
The irony is, amidst the stagnating trail funding, Montana continues to grow and attract more and more people. And our trail infrastructure is often the hardest hit. In the last decade, the number of people using Montana trails has skyrocketed. In state parks alone, we see 33 percent more visitors than we did in 2012, and that growth shows so signs of slowing. Among those visitors, 89 percent identify trails as the single most important amenity provided by the parks.
Stagnating funding amidst rising trail use isn’t a problem that will fix itself. It’s time for Montanans to take matters into our own hands and create a focused, fiscally responsible state-level program to better fund trail work on our public lands.
A made-in-Montana trail program could provide more funding flexibility and streamline the currently burdensome grant process associated with federal-financed Recreation Trails Program. It would also provide stability for trail stewardship groups from inconsistent and undependable federal funding.
Rural communities could leverage this program to develop new trails and more welcoming trailhead facilities to better attract new growth and entrepreneurs. Montana would be better positioned to meet rising recreation demand and avert management conflicts in high-use areas with more purpose-built trails.
These outcomes are possible, but only if we choose to make them happen. Our kids are going to need outdoor opportunities every bit as much as we did. Let’s make sure the trails system we hand off isn’t in disrepair. Visit our website www.montanatrailscoalition.org to read our full report.