Jeff Halligan couldn’t help but pause to watch the father-daughter team of Tim and Bella Martin clear a log from the Twenty Mile Trail near Upper Payette Lake with a crosscut saw.
“That’s what we’re about,” Halligan said. “Getting people out in the woods.”
Halligan is the executive director of the Idaho Trails Association, a group that organizes volunteer work parties to clear and maintain nonmotorized trails in some of Idaho’s most beautiful and challenging locations.
The ITA’s volunteers are trying to fill part of the maintenance void created by a declining trails budget for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the vast majority of Idaho’s nonmotorized trails. The funding gap has been the subject of statewide summits this year run by Idaho State Parks and Recreation.
The ITA organized two weeklong “work vacations” last year. It has five this year, plus several shorter events — pushing deep into the backcountry from the Sawtooths to the Owyhees to the Panhandle. The organization hopes to expand to other parts of the state but needs to find local volunteers.
The U.S. Forest Service manages 23,099 miles of trails in Idaho and most of the state’s 10,248 miles of nonmotorized trails. Only 5,659 miles of the total system were maintained to Forest Service standards in 2015 — the lowest total in seven years.
The list of potential projects is “overwhelming,” Halligan said. The ITA is in its sixth season of work.
“We’re not going to catch up, but we’ll do our best to improve what we have ... open them back up and keep them sustainable, so they’re not going away,” said Halligan, a former Forest Service employee. “We’re not into building new stuff because there’s so much stuff already out here that needs help.”
‘WORKING THEIR BUTTS OFF’
Patti Stieger, who recently retired from the Payette National Forest’s Krassel District, said her district received enough money to maintain only 100 of its 1,000 miles of trails.
Clem Pope also retired from the Krassel’s recreation staff.
“Every year, they keep slicing away on the trail maintenance budget,” Pope said. “Trail maintenance is kind of on the tail end of the dog for the Forest Service — fire has been growing, trails has been declining.”
Stieger and Pope have joined the ITA as volunteers — lending their expertise to the organization and sharing their passion for trails with others. The work also allows them to chip away at the maintenance backlog they experienced firsthand.
“Any federal agency is always underfunded when it comes to trails,” Stieger said. “... So you look for other ways to get work done, like ITA. It’s great. It’s a really diverse group. You get young kids sometimes and you get 60- and 70-year-olds. These guys are working their butts off.”
I love trails, I love the tools — and it seems like a good opportunity to keep myself involved.
Clem Pope, retired Forest Service employee, on being an ITA volunteer
The ITA primarily works on nonmotorized trails — recreation groups generate money for maintenance of motorized trails through fees — and specializes in out-of-the-way places. The weeklong trips involve hiking 10 or 12 miles into a base camp or working while backpacking. Many of the meals are prepared by a backcountry chef, a perk that helps push the experience toward vacation.
“It’s a pretty awesome experience for anyone,” said Clay Jacobson, who recently became the ITA’s second employee.
Jacobson has highlighted the need for trail maintenance during a series of talks around the state describing his hike of the Idaho Centennial Trail last year. The trail from the Nevada state line to the Canadian border was impassable in many places.
Some of the worst hiking was along Marble Creek in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Jacobson will go back this summer with an ITA crew to clear 13 miles of trail. He knows long-distance hikers who have attempted the Centennial Trail and turned back because of that section.
“That’s just one obstacle out of the way,” he said.
BEHIND THE SCENES
The Martins, who attended the crew leader college last month on the Twenty Mile Trail to hone their skills, signed up for the Alice-Toxaway Loop weeklong project in the Sawtooths for the fourth straight year. Bella’s older brother originally wanted to go in 2013 but had a scheduling conflict. Bella participated at age 13 and was hooked. Her younger sister wants to go now.
“You don’t see trail crews,” said Bella, who is a Boise High senior-to-be. “When you are the trail crew, you feel like the secret behind the scenes.”
Volunteer crews remove logs, trim brush, restore tread, repair and install water bars (which direct water off the trail), and perform other maintenance as needed.
Tim has noticed the sophistication of the projects grow with the inclusion of retired Forest Service employees such as Pope and Stieger. Pope worked on the Alice-Toxaway project last year.
“The level of knowledge that comes with that is immense,” Tim said. “The work you did was great, but what you learned was just invaluable because (Pope) really stopped and explained all of this — how this got this way, how we’re going to fix it.”
That professionalism is important to Halligan, who doesn’t want the final product to look like volunteer work.
“The quality of work we want to accomplish is top-notch,” he said. “That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on — being really good at what we do.”
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
The work is performed strictly with hand tools. Chainsaws, like other machines, aren’t allowed in wilderness areas — but the ITA doesn’t use them even where they’re permitted. That’s partly out of caution, partly out of sentiment.
“Clem and Patti and myself, our careers were spent in the wilderness,” Halligan said. “Those traditional tools, we want to keep that tradition alive.”
2,562Volunteer field hours contributed to the Idaho Trails Association in 2015. Those hours were valued at $43,239 by the ITA.
The ITA cleared 60.5 miles of trail last year, reconstructed 22.5 miles and built more than a mile of new trail across 15 projects. The budget was $32,000, with more than a quarter of the money coming from REI grants. The Idaho Conservation League and Sawtooth Society also were major supporters.
The budget will almost double this year, including a grant from the National Forest Foundation to fund Jacobson’s seasonal position as trails program specialist. Other key sponsors include Clif Bar, Pioneer Alliance, ON Semiconductor and the general membership base. The largest expenses are wages (Halligan became the ITA’s first paid employee in June 2015), food and packing services to get gear to the project sites.
The ITA reported that 238 volunteers contributed to its work last year. The ICL loaned its staff for one project.
With increased fundraising and more crew leaders, the ITA could keep expanding its reach.
“Our weeklongs fill up really fast — within a couple of days of advertising it,” Halligan said. “So the people are out there. ... A lot of them are returners and a lot of them then tell their friends and their friends come.”
Want to help?
The Idaho Trails Association lists its projects at idahotrailsassociation.org/project. Many fill up fast but there are some spots available this year, including on a weeklong project on the Little Wood River Trail (Aug. 21-27) and a two-day project at Trail Creek Summit (Oct. 1-2).
Memberships are available at idahotrailsassociation.org/membership. Student memberships are $15. Adult memberships range from $25 to $500.
ITA “formed to provide a voice for hikers throughout Idaho,” according to its 2015 annual report. “Our role is to get work done and to develop strong citizen stewards who are informed and educated and provide support to land management agencies.”
Forest Service can’t keep up
The U.S. Forest Service manages more than 23,000 miles of trails in Idaho. The mileage total that meets Forest Service maintenance standards has declined each of the past three years, to 5,659 in 2015. That means three-quarters of the system doesn’t meet standards.
Spending on trails dipped 14 percent from its 2001 to 2014 budgets, according to a Forest Service report. That decline has been more dramatic in recent years because stimulus money provided a brief uptick in spending.
Still, the number of miles maintained in Idaho has held steady. At least 7,000 miles of trails were maintained each of the past five years. The total has increased by 62 percent since 2008.
“The increasing participation of volunteer-driven organizations like the Idaho Trails Association and Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation (can) stretch the limited federal appropriations and get more done on the ground,” said Andy Brunelle, a coordinator for the Forest Service. “They are valued and important partners.”