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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jun 09 2017

Breaking the Agency’s Back

Lands transfer appears to be endgame of president's jaw-dropping proposed 84% cut to Forest Service trail budget

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No matter if you hike, ride horses, or mountain bike, trails are what we all use to traverse and access our public lands. From a federal land manager’s perspective, trail systems are what keep legions of various recreationists on the same path.

Without designated and maintained trails as a management tool, a multitude of haphazard individual paths would line our landscape, scar hillsides, erode forest life, and trash our watersheds. Trails are the infrastructure that enables continued backcountry adventures. They are the foundation of our outdoor way of life. They’re also a significant economic driver, with trail-based recreation supporting an estimated 64,000 jobs and contributing $94 billion annually to the nation’s economy.

Yet under President Trump’s proposed Forest Service (USFS) budget, federal funding for trail maintenance would take a devastating hit.

His budget would cut USFS trail improvement and maintenance by 84% compared to 2017 funding. It’s worthwhile to spell out that number to ensure you’re not reading a typo – eighty-four percent!

A subtraction of this magnitude would break the agency’s back.
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If one reads between the numbers, the end game certainly appears to be the transfer of public lands to state or local authorities and/or to private interests. It’s a strategy of dysfunction that leads to divestment - if the government isn’t allowed to do it’s job, then it becomes much easier for private interests to take the job.

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To illustrate what such a severe cut would look like on the ground, it helps to understand just how large the backlog of deferred trail maintenance is. Although several non-governmental organizations (including MWA) run programs that put tools into the hands of volunteers to aid in the effort, the USFS’ own trail crews account for nearly 80% of the maintenance and construction on our trails. Nationwide, national forest lands contain over 158,000 miles of trail, of which only 62,000 miles presently meet safety standards.

On top of that stockpile of work, the USFS is stretched thinner every year due to persistent annual cuts in federal dollars allotted to trails – most notably the U.S. Budget Sequestration of 2013. This year, those absurd budgets from 2013 will leave at least one USFS ranger district here in Montana with a mere five seasonal employees responsible for over 1,000 miles of trail maintenance.

While the federal budget to manage and keep trails open continues on a downward spiral, the agency faces a towering surge of recreational use. Trails serve the needs of about 50 million hikers, cross-country skiers, horseback riders, off-road vehicles, bicyclists, and other recreationists on USFS lands every year. The number of recreation visitor days on USFS trails has increased 376% since 1977. These numbers originate from the government’s own data and are easily obtainable with a quick Google search. So, in light of the ever-rising numbers of recreationist on our public lands, it seems obvious that federal dollars earmarked for trails should either increase or at least hold steady.

But the President’s budget not only fails to recognize this rise in outdoor recreation – it seeks to repress it with a butchering cut of 84% in trail funding.

What is the rationale behind the President’s proposed cut to the USFS? What are the desired goals or outcomes for prohibiting the management and access to our public lands? Because there is no justification provided with these numbers, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

It’s easy to see that the USFS would be unable to function at the proposed level of funding. What entity is then tapped to fill the void of “caring for the land and serving the people”? If one reads between the numbers, the end game certainly appears to be the transfer of public lands to state or local authorities and/or to private interests. It’s a strategy of dysfunction that leads to divestment - if the government isn’t allowed to do it’s job, then it becomes much easier for private interests to take that job.

Make no mistake, this budget places the 100-plus-year legacy of the Forest Service on the chopping block while the agency’s own hands are tied behind its back.

This issue affects not only backcountry enthusiasts on foot, horseback, and wheels. It will also have a substantial impact on front country or urban-interface USFS trails (the trails so many of us use the most). The dog-walker, the trail-runner, the bird watcher – all have a shared interest in opened and maintained trails.

We ask you to join us in urging Senator Tester at (202) 224-2644 and Senator Daines at (202) 224-2651 to ardently oppose this proposed 84% cut in spending for the maintenance of trails, our access, our economy, and our livelihood.

Please also contact our newly elected Congressman Greg Gianforte and remind him that during his campaign he promised to “defend our right to recreate on public lands.” Increasingly, the tools that the Forest Service relies on to shape their work have continually been taken away from them – let’s stop this latest egregious cut before it’s too late.

- Matt Bowser, MWA stewardship director