The United States Forest Service manages 158,000 miles of trails that provide a wide array of recreational opportunities and access to America’s National Forests. These trails provide world class opportunities for hiking, horseback riding, camping, hunting, fishing, and other outdoor recreation. National Forest trails provide opportunities for all Americans to enjoy the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. Further, these trails help fuel America’s $646 billion recreation industry that supports 6.5 million jobs nationwide.
Yet, America’s trails are in decline. And the problem is only getting worse. Only a quarter of National Forest trails are maintained to Forest Service standards, and the agency currently faces a $314 million backlog in trail maintenance, as well as a $210 million backlog in annual maintenance, capital improvements, and operations. Additional federal funding for trail maintenance is unlikely and cost-free proposals to improve National Forest trail maintenance are needed more than ever.
THE NATIONAL FOREST SYSTEM TRAILS STEWARDSHIP ACT
The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act (H.R. 845) introduced by Representatives Lummis (R-WY) and Walz (D-MN) will expand National Forest trail maintenance—and increase forest access for all Americans—without adding to the federal deficit. H.R. 845, National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act – As introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Tim Walz (D-MN) – February 2015.
The legislation has several important components:
VOLUNTEER AND PARTNERSHIP STRATEGY
The Forest Service relies heavily on volunteers and partner organizations to fulfill its mission, and volunteers and partners play an important role in maintaining National Forest trails. With shrinking agency budgets, volunteers and partners will play a growing role in trail maintenance in the future. Volunteering is also great way to share the outdoors with America’s youth. To date, the Forest Service has no overall strategy for increasing volunteerism and partnerships and ensuring that volunteers and partners are effectively utilized for trail maintenance projects. Such a strategy is sorely needed, and will help the agency meet its trail maintenance demands and continue to provide high quality recreational opportunities for Americans.
The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act requires the Forest Service to establish and implement a national strategy to expand the use of volunteers and partners in National Forest trail maintenance. This strategy will lead to dramatic increases in the use of volunteers and partners in trail maintenance, and will address current barriers to increased volunteerism and partnerships. The effort is modeled after a volunteer strategy put in place on National Wildlife Refuges, which has led to great increases in volunteerism.
PRIORITY TRAIL MAINTENANCE PROGRAM
Many concerns about trail maintenance within National Forests are focused a small number of high priority places that receive extensive use and have significant trail maintenance shortfalls. The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act requires the Forest Service to identify 9-15 priority areas on National Forest lands across the country for increased trail maintenance. The areas would be selected after public input, and will benefit from the increased maintenance activities.
STEWARDSHIP CREDITS FOR OUTFITTERS AND GUIDES
Outfitters and guides provide important services in America’s wilderness areas by making wilderness accessible to average Americans. This access depends on well-maintained trails—without them,many special places would be inaccessible to people seeking to enjoy the great outdoors. The shortfall in National Forest trail maintenance has forced many outfitters and guides to maintain trails on their own. Currently, this maintenance work is done on a volunteer basis, putting a huge strain on these small businesspeople. Outfitters and guides pay for the privilege of operating their business on public lands. The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act establishes a pilot program to allow outfitters and guides to treat their National Forest trail maintenance activities as an in-kind donation to offset fees owed to the federal government. This will lead to increased trail maintenance activities by outfitters and guides.
Paul Spitler, The Wilderness Society; (202) 360-1912 or email@example.com.
Randy Rasmussen, Back Country Horsemen of America; (541) 745-5452 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Trails provide Americans with access to high quality outdoor recreation opportunities. Photo courtesy of wilderness.net.