Bill would invest in cash-strapped national forest trails

Hiking a trail on Coconino National Forest (Arizona).

Credit: Coconino National Forest, flickr.

A bipartisan bill introduced June 18 would improve access to trails on national forests, addressing huge maintenance backlogs and bolstering safety for visitors.

The legislation, introduced by Reps Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Tim Walz (D-MN), would expand the role of volunteer and partner organizations in maintaining national forest trails. At a time when budgets are tight and demand for public land access is high, the U.S. Forest Service can use the help; a 2013 study from the Government Accountability Office found that the agency carries a $314 million trail maintenance backlog, which in turn may limit outdoor recreation opportunities and damage natural resources. The same report estimated that only about one-quarter of trails currently meet the Forest Service’s own maintenance specifications.

“Improving access and safety in our national forests is a solid return on investment for America,” said Paul Spitler, director of wilderness campaigns at The Wilderness Society. “Our trails system helps contribute over $80 billion each year to the outdoor recreation industry so we can’t afford to lose it. We applaud Representatives Lummis and Walz for their leadership on preserving and maintaining our trails.”

The National Forest System sees about 165 million visitors annually, making its network of trails among the busiest on earth. The latter allows access to activities like cross-country skiing, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and off-road vehicle use.

The bill would also ask the Secretary of Agriculture, whose department presides over the Forest Service, to designate 9 to 15 areas where improved trail maintenance is a priority.

Hiking in California's Cleveland National Forest. Credit: USFS Region 5, flickr.