A clog in the trail system

Workers on Pacific Crest Trail

flickr, U.S. Dept of Agriculture

Arteries carry blood from our heart, pumping it from the top of our head to the bottom of all ten toes. Now, how do our arteries relate to our trails? Our trails not only carry us physically across public lands, they also transport our rich natural and cultural history and legacy from generation to generation.

However, there is a major clog in the national forest trail system.

A recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed the damaged state of the Forest Service trail system. Forest trails help fuel a $730 billion recreation industry, yet are hardly paid back in return. As trails receive more public use every year, and consequently more stress, trail maintenance is not keeping pace.

Oak Creek Huckaby Trail, Coconino National Forest. Photo: Coconino National Forest, flickr

According to the new study, the Forest Service trail maintenance backlog exceeds a half-billion dollars—$314 million in trail maintenance and $210 million backlog in annual maintenance, capital improvements and operations. With only one-quarter of the agency’s 158,000 miles of trails meeting agency standards for maintenance, the backlog poses a threat to trail use, safety and the livelihood of natural resources.

And what’s more: Added to this clog is an ever-changing forest landscape. Wildlife and insect disease plague these regions, altering habitats and ecosystems.

Our forest trails are too important to let lapse. Trails offer a unique opportunity for all sorts of individuals—from hikers and equestrians to mountain bicyclists and hunters and anglers.

Photo: alex ford, flickr

As we step into these trails, we also step back into history. The Lewis and Clark’s Historic Trail commemorates the U.S.' search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean; the Santa Fe Trail once led to new southwest territories, remembering the signage of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War in 1848; and the Trails of Tears reminds us of the cries of the Cherokee after they were removed from their homelands.

Although the most straight-forward solution is certainly better funding for our trail system, the public will play an important role in maintaining the trails they use and love. In 2012, volunteers contributed 1.2 million labor hours, equaling 667 full-time jobs or $26 million invested in trail maintenance.

In fact, in 2010 the Forest Service generated enough volunteers at the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests in Georgia to amount to 21 full-time employees. The Wilderness Society’s Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards provides much of the fuel for this important work.

Photo: ChattOconeeNF, flickr

Volunteer partnerships like SAWS play a hugely important role in addressing the forest trail maintenance backlog and providing opportunities to get youth involved in stewardship of the great outdoors. Just an hour of your time can help to maintain or rebuild our trail system. 

But volunteers alone will not solve the trail maintenance crisis. Congress must step up to properly fund our forest trail system. Without this action, Americans may well lose the arteries to the great outdoors.