The Saratoga Sun -

Trailing off

Representative Lummis ends political trail with National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, bill to promote volunteerism in managing trails system

 

Courtesy Michelle Oliva

Saratoga Sun reporter Max Miller takes in one of Carbon County's vast wilderness tracts near Six-Mile Gap Campground on the Platte River. An epidemic of pine-killing beetles has felled many trees in Southern Wyoming, leaving trails poorly defined, confusing and dangerous to the inattentive.

Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) may be winding down her long Congressional career, but one of the last bills she sponsored in office just took effect. On Nov. 28, President Obama signed into law the Lummis-Walz National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act (NFSTSA).

Volunteering

to the Rescue

The act, which was co-chaired by Representative Tim Walz (D-MN), aims to help the Forest Service maintain the massive network of trails that crisscross National Forests, Grasslands and wilderness areas. "This bill directs the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to publish a national strategy to significantly increase the role of volunteers and partners in trail maintenance," the NFSTSA reads. The bill also calls for the Department of Agriculture to identify nine to 15 "priority areas" in particular need of increased trail upkeep.

158,000 Unkempt Miles

A significant backlog in providing this sort of service is evident from a number of statistics. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which measures the efficacy of government programs, said in a 2013 report that the Forest Service is only able to maintain about a quarter of its more than 158,000 miles of trails. About two thirds of those trails receive no maintenance at all, the report said, and the amount of backlogged work was estimated to be $314 million at that time.

These under-managed paths can pose serious problems for hunters, hikers, horseback riders and others who enjoy the outdoors. Poorly maintained trails can prevent older or less able recreationists from accessing many areas, harm natural environments and incur greater expenditures down the line, since "deferring maintenance can add to costs," according to the GAO report.

The consequences can also be deadly; without clear markers, it's easy for novice hikers or outdoor enthusiasts to wander astray and get lost in harsh environments.

"I've talked to outfitters who are taking pack trips into the National Forests, they're only in there for two or three days and when they try to get out they're having to chop their way out because so many trees have fallen across the trails, even while they're in the forest," Lummis described the need for more maintenance in testimony to Congress.

Firecrews and Guides

to Pitch-In on Paths

Though the NFSTSA doesn't allocate additional money to trail stewardship, it does address the issues in other ways. One of the big changes that could impact this area is that the NFSTSA directs the USDA to study how to employ fire crews in servicing trails during the off-season. Wild fire fighters are typically deployed mostly during the dry fire season, and according to Lummis, using such crews for trail maintenance would make sense because they come skilled and ready to operate in woodland environments.

Lummis said the bill will also make use of outfitters' and guides' expertise. Outfitting and guiding is big business in Wyoming, and those professionals have to pay permit fees to the Forest Service in order to operate. The NFSTSA will allow outfitters and guides to offset permitting expenses by performing trail maintenance, putting a uniquely vested and skilled set of people to work sustaining the infrastructure that makes their industry possible.

The View from the

Carbon County Crew

According to Aaron Voos, a public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, there are over 1,000 miles of trails in Medicine Bow National Forest alone. An epidemic of pine-killing beetles has left many of these thoroughfares in poor condition however, he said.

Because elements of the volunteer-mobilization strategy have yet to be revealed and a new Administration is moving into Washington, many questions remain about what the NFSTSA will look like in Carbon County.

Voos said making predictions about the roll-out would be "pure speculation," at this point, and elaborated, "we don't know what (the bill) is going to mean when it trickles down to us." That being said, "I think it's safe to say that, with the beetle kill we have and the amount of trails we have, we will see some impact from (the NFSTSA)," Voos said.

According to Voos, there are six different ranger districts in Medicine Bow National Forest, and each district has the flexibility to work out their own arrangement with outside groups for trail maintenance. "In the past few years, more often than not, we have not had a trails crew," he allowed. The Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the Wyoming Conservation Corps have done projects in the area before though, he wrote in an email.

Bipartisan Backing

In testimony to Congress, Lummis, citing the bill's 23 sponsoring senators and 86 co-sponsors in the House, called the NFSTSA "one of the most bipartisan bills in the entire Congress." She hailed support from over 50 outdoor recreation conservation groups for the NFSTSA and said it had generated such wide-spread enthusiasm because it was "kind of a motherhood and apple pie bill."

A Back Country

Coalition

Among organizations which backed the NFSTSA were the Backcountry Horsemen of America, the American Horse Council, the Wilderness Society, and the American Hiking Society.

"Congress recognizes that our National Forest trail system is deteriorating," chairman of Back Country Horsemen of America said in support of the NFSTSA.

"During times of limited agency budgets, the role of volunteers is critical to ensuring Americans can continue to explore the great outdoors", Vice President of the American Hiking Society Peter Olsen told the Wilderness Society when asked about the bill.

For now, some question marks persist about what form the NFSTSA will ultimately take. Stay tuned though: your help may be needed.

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