Outdoors blog

GAO report: 3 of 4 Forest Service trails below standards

A U.S. Forest Service pack string heads up the trail to Star Peak in the Kootenai National Forest loaded with materials to restore a fire lookout. In the lead is packer Cindy Betlach based in Troy, Mont., followed by mules from the Northern region mule string based at the Historic Ninemile Ranger Station northwest of Missoula. In the background is Billiard Table Peak and some of the area northeast of Lake Pend Oreille and along the Idaho-Montana border proposed as the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. (Rich Landers)
A U.S. Forest Service pack string heads up the trail to Star Peak in the Kootenai National Forest loaded with materials to restore a fire lookout. In the lead is packer Cindy Betlach based in Troy, Mont., followed by mules from the Northern region mule string based at the Historic Ninemile Ranger Station northwest of Missoula. In the background is Billiard Table Peak and some of the area northeast of Lake Pend Oreille and along the Idaho-Montana border proposed as the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness. (Rich Landers)

HIKING -- A new federal report says only one-quarter of U.S. Forest Service trails meet the agency’s own standards as it attempts to catch up with a $524 million maintenance deficit.

The is the latest news, coming out after my recent localized story: Budget cuts leave recreation areas looking for outside help.

The Missoulian this week looked into the Government Accountability Office's nation-wide report on trail conditions.

Two groups petitioned members of Congress to look into the matter, since the last similar study was done in 1989. U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Jim Moran, D-Va., officially requested the study.

“With the important exception of maintaining forest health to combat wildfires and insect kill, there is no other activity in the Forest Service’s portfolio that is more important than ensuring the public’s access to our forests and wilderness areas,” Lummis said in a statement, where she also described the trails maintenance program as “held together by Band-Aids and bailing wire.”

The Government Accountability Office report released on June 27 found the Forest Service did some maintenance on 37 percent of its 158,000 miles of trail in fiscal 2012. But it estimated another $314 million in deferred maintenance remained on the to-do list, along with $210 million in unfinished annual maintenance, capital improvements and operations. In its recommendations, the GAO called for closer work with volunteers to get projects done.

That’s already a working assumption for groups like the Backcountry Horsemen, according to Montana state chairman Mark Himmel.

“We asked the Forest Service for a punch list of places that needed work,” Himmel said after returning from a brush-clearing trip on the Continental Divide Trail near Rogers Pass. “The guy said throw a dart at the map. Wherever it hits needs work. We’re a maintenance organization. We pick up the slack and make it work. We know there’s budget cutbacks. I don’t know where it’s going to go, except to just keep at it.”




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