Help may be on the way — even if only symbolically — for Idaho’s beleaguered backcountry trail system.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue designated 15 priority areas across the nation in an effort to chip away at a $300 million trail maintenance backlog that threatens to choke off recreational access to remote mountains and canyons. The list includes a vast area known as the Central Idaho Wilderness Complex that stretches from the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area north to the Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area, and is laced with 9,600 miles of trails. Also on the list is the Hells Canyon National Recreation area in Idaho and Oregon and its 1,200-mile trail system.
Mandated by the 2016 National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, Perdue’s list is designed to focus trail work in the specific areas, and tasks the U.S. Forest Service with coordinating with volunteer groups to double the amount of work they do. However, there is no additional funding associated with the designations.
According to agency estimates, only about 25 percent of trails on national forests are in good shape. The agency focuses its work on what it calls “system trails,” those that function as a thoroughfare. The rest of the trails, which often link into the main trails, are in varying stages of disrepair, with some disappearing altogether from lack of maintenance.
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The Forest Service already relies heavily on volunteer groups such as the Idaho Trails Association, Selway Bitterroot-Frank Church Foundation and the Montana Conservation Corps to clear trails in Idaho’s backcountry areas.
The backlog is exacerbated by wildfires, which weaken trees and cause them to blow over intermittently years after the flames are out.
Trail users, agency officials and others have been sounding the alarm for years, but finding solutions has proven more difficult that traversing a trail clogged with brush and blow-down. It was so bad that the Idaho Backcountry Horsemen asked for the Frank Church Wilderness to be declared a disaster area in 2013. The move brought attention to the problem, but shrinking trail budgets were no match for the task.
Volunteer groups once worked mostly to augment work being done by Forest Service trail crews, but now are deemed critical to the agency’s efforts to maintain access. Outfitters and guides also have been instrumental in clearing trails they frequently rely on.
Those groups worked with local Forest Service officials, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the Clearwater Basin Collaborative to lobby for the inclusion of the Idaho areas on the list. Now they will continue to work together to lay out a strategy for making a dent in the backlog.
Nobody knows exactly how Perdue’s list will play out on the ground, but many trail advocates believe it’s a positive move.
David Langhorst, director of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, said the list is a rallying point for action. He pledged his agency’s time and expertise to organize and track the effort. The state agency already issues trail grants that can be spent on both state and federal land to the tune of $2.5 million a year.
“We tried to be in a leadership role in organizing everybody to lobby for designation of the Central Idaho priority area, and then basically committed to them we would be willing to devote some of our staff time here at IDPR to serving as a clearinghouse of information and keeping track of and logging all the volunteer programs,” Langhorst said.
He said tackling the problem is critical to Idaho’s economy and its reputation as a place with an abundance of outdoor recreation.
“Trails mean business in Idaho, and recreation is becoming, if not the only, certainly one of the most important economic drivers in rural Idaho,” he said. “It’s one of the few uses people have known historically that is still a driver.”
Carol Hennessey, recreation program manager for the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, said the designation is welcomed and now means the groups must work to make it effective.
“We all need to get together pretty quickly and collaborate and develop an implementation plan,” she said.
Jeff Halligan, executive director of the Idaho Trails Association, said the designation will help inform the public of the problem and draw them to volunteer opportunities such as his group offers. The association organizes work parties, often comprised of people with little or no backcountry or trail work experience.
“It’s going to help raise awareness as to what is out there and hopefully help more volunteers become involved,” he said. “It’s a neat thing but there are a lot of questions we don’t have answered yet.”
Even if the designation brings more attention to the problem, Bobby Grillo, regional director of the Montana Conservation Corps in Missoula, Mont., said money remains a critical need. The group works extensively in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area.
“I think there is a lot of movement to keep these places open to the public,” he said. “Especially in Central Idaho, there is a lot of pressure on land managers to do a better job of dealing with the maintenance backlog. The conundrum is there is good people who work for the Forest Service who are just hamstrung by the lack of dollars (the agency is) throwing at the resource. So here we have an initiative with no money attached. It’s a classic unfunded mandate, but there are a lot of groups that work in all these areas in Central Idaho. We are all clearing trails, cutting logs and keeping trail corridors open. It’s great work for young people.”
Another provision of the bill that has yet to be implemented allows outfitters to count trail work they perform against the 3 percent of their gross revenue they are obligated to pay to the federal government for the privilege of working on federal land. Leo Crane of Orofino represents Outfitters and Guides on the Clearwater Basin Collaborative and said that piece, when implemented, will help both the outfitters and trail users.
“They open a lot of trails anyway, if they can get some compensation from the Forest Service for doing it, it will be that much better,” he said.