When John McCarthy joined a seasonal Forest Service trail crew in the late 1970s, some of the trails forged through the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 1964 already were fading.
Forty years after he left, some of them are gone and McCarthy, a former environment reporter and current board member for the Idaho Trails Association, worries many more will follow.
“There’s only the primary trails left, and it’s going to take a lot of work to keep those open,” McCarthy said in an interview.
But a major obstacle stands in the way: Funding to maintain many of the state’s trails continues to fall, forcing wilderness managers to get creative in the face of ever-shrinking budgets.
Idaho trail maintenance still declines
“My whole career with the Forest Service, funding was decreasing,” said Jeff Halligan, who worked for the agency from 1995 to 2003. Halligan now serves as executive director of the Idaho Trails Association, a nonprofit that helps with trail preservation and advocacy. “And I don’t see any indication that there’s going to be an increase.”
Adjusting for inflation, Idaho’s portion of that funding has fallen 14% over the past 15 years, officials said, and the agency’s overall budget will again see cuts in 2020.
According to Forest Service figures, Idaho had $5.6 million in 2011 to spend on trail maintenance in its seven national forests. In fiscal year 2019, it had $4.2 million — roughly $43,000 more than in 2018. (Andy Brunelle, a coordinator for the Forest Service, said though the maintenance budget is where the bulk of funding comes from, there are other sources of funds for maintaining trails.)
Though Congress last year approved fire disaster funds that will take some of the strain of fighting wildfires off of the Forest Service, that doesn’t go into effect until 2020. For now, the agency’s wildlife fire management budget is about $2.4 billion, nearly half of the total Forest Service budget.
It’s becoming more difficult to maintain the level of work from decades past. In 2011, a combination of contract workers, volunteers and Forest Service crews maintained more than 8,000 miles of the 23,000 miles of Forest Service trails in Idaho. In 2017, that number had only dropped to 7,900 miles of trail maintained, but the following year, 600 fewer miles were maintained. (Brunelle said trail maintenance data from the 1990s and early 2000s was not readily available for all the National Forests across Idaho.)
“We’re not going to catch up and improve it like it was in the ‘90s,” Halligan said. “We’ll always be playing catch-up.”
The squeeze on funds means fewer seasonal trail crews, like the ones McCarthy worked on for several years, and tougher decisions for forest managers about which projects to tackle.
“The type of work we have to do doesn’t change but the priority does,” said Amy Baumer, spokeswoman for the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Heavily used trails take precedence, and more difficult tasks like rebuilding washed out routes or removing fallen trees is prioritized over removing overgrown brush.
According to maintenance logs for the Middle Fork Ranger District of the Salmon-Challis, some trails haven’t been maintained since the early 2000s. Baumer said this year crews repaired a landslide in the Loon Creek Corridor, making the trail passable for the first time in 15 years.
“(Crews) have to look at what the need is,” Baumer said. “There are definitely trails that don’t get maintained as often, (and when crews work on them) they’ll have trouble finding the thread.”
McCarthy, who earlier this year released a book on the early Idaho Forest Service leaders that helped shape the trail system, has a list of trails in the Frank Church – River of No Return Wilderness and Selway-Bitterroot that he’s worried about: Crane Meadows, Sulfer Creek, Honeymoon Lake, Mountain Meadows. Some have hundreds of fallen logs blocking access, while others have “ghost ranger stations,” shuttered relics where crews once stayed and worked.
Idaho volunteers clear trails
Over the last decade, the mileage of maintained Forest Service trails has started to shift, and the source of that maintenance is shifting, too.
In 2011, volunteers accounted for about one-third of trail miles maintained, while contract employees contributed 14% and Forest Service crews handled half of the projects. Last year, volunteers maintained 49% of the miles maintained, contract workers tackled 6% and Forest Service crews maintained 44%.
“We started hiring fewer crews and relying on volunteers more to help,” Halligan said. “Early on, it was hit and miss with volunteers. We’d go out to check on (their work) and it wasn’t cleared to standard.”
“We’ve increased volunteer hours every year,” said Sally Ferguson, executive director of the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, which helps clear trails and offer wilderness training and internship opportunities. “As the Forest Service continues to lose funding and people retire out, they’re not able to replace them. That’s where the Selway-Bitterroot Foundation comes in.”
In addition to the foundation, national forests partner with a wide variety of other groups. Baumer said the Salmon-Challis alone works with Americorps, the Idaho Conservation Corps, Idaho Trails Association, Back Country Horsemen of Idaho, 2L Trails and the local snowmobile association.
But volunteer help comes with its own set of problems. Sometimes, volunteers lack the experience or skills designated crews would have. Many volunteer projects through groups like the Idaho Trails Association are weekend trips, meaning workers don’t have the time to get deep in the wilderness.
“The decline in funding made this shift away from crews that were highly trained,” Halligan said. “It slowly chiseled away at our abilities to clear trails.”
Last year, the Selway-Bitterroot Foundation contributed more than 14,000 volunteer hours toward trail maintenance.
“We match dollar for dollar what the Forest Service gives us — in volunteer hours and in actual cash,” Ferguson said.
Three years ago, ITA completed 15 projects in a season. In 2018, the group completed 33 projects. By the end of 2019, Halligan guessed, the group will finish about 40.
“When we originally started doing these projects, the idea was we’d come on a few projects and get them up to Forest Service standards,” Halligan said. “Now we’re turning down way more projects than we should. If we could get the volunteers, we’d be out on a project every weekend.
“They’re trying to do (the work) with volunteers, but volunteers can only do so much,” he added. “That’s a job someone should be paid for.”
Funding for some Idaho trails on the rise
Not all of Idaho’s trail maintenance funding is on the decline, though.
Tom Helmer, the nonmotorized trails coordinator with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, said IDPR’s budget for trail maintenance has actually grown slightly in recent years.
Helmer said funding comes from the federal Recreational Trails Program, which takes a portion from fuel taxes through the Federal Highway Trust Fund. Part of the program’s distribution model looks at estimated recreational fuel use in each state, meaning as Idaho’s population has grown, so has its portion of Recreational Trails Program funding.
When the program was first implemented in the early 1990s, Idaho received about $950,000 per year through the fund. Now, Helmer said, Idaho’s share is nearly $1.7 million.
There is a catch: A certain portion of that funding has to go toward motorized trails, which already have a designated maintenance model.
“The motorized trail program has been funded through offroad vehicle registration fees,” Helmer said. “My goal is to develop a similar program for nonmotorized trails.”
Helmer has high hopes that he can work with other agencies to try to offset some of the Forest Service’s funding losses.
“We are working on some additional ways of funding trails,” he said, though it’s still in early stages.
For now, wilderness advocates like Halligan, Ferguson and McCarthy continue to try to fill the widening funding gaps and rally support.