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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jun 08 2018

How We’re Putting Your Tax Dollars to Work on Public Lands

We stretch and multiply just about every federal grant dollar we receive


Everything comes with a price tag, including MWA’s modestly-sized volunteer trail operations. Our trail stewardship programs are made possible through a mix of private foundation grants, generous donations, and corporate sponsorship. We also receive public funding through the Challenge Cost Share Agreement, administered by the US Forest Service, and the Recreation Trail Program, administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. 

But for nearly every dollar we receive from private foundations or public funders, we match it with another dollar – by bringing our own finances to the table, securing in-kind donations, and recruiting volunteers to do the labor of improving and building trails on our national forests.  

Every single dime MWA receives in public funding goes into our trail stewardship work. This work not only maintains our trails, but also increases access to public lands. Not a single dime of public funding goes into our advocacy work. We make sure of that. 

Here’s a look at what we’ve accomplished with the help of public funding since we began stewarding public lands trails seven years ago.

Since 2012, we have:

  • Recruited and coordinated 540 volunteers.
  • Trained and outfitted each of those volunteers, enabling them to contribute 27,819 hours towards trail maintenance and creation. 
  • Improved, maintained, or constructed over 250 miles of trail. 
  • Donated more than $700,000 of in-kind labor to enhance trails and increase access on public lands.
  • Completed over 60 trail improvement projects on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
  • Worked in eight of the ten national forests in Montana, both national parks, and on BLM-managed land
  • Engaged 120 youth participants in trail work.
  • Engaged military veterans in trail work (18% of of our trail volunteers in 2017 were veterans). 

The sweat that our crews put into trails serves a wide array of recreationists on our forests, including hikers, hunters, anglers, equestrians, trail runners, and everyone else who uses the trails. This year, we are working on two mountain bike trails, one outside Red Lodge and another outside Helena. We’re also clearing trails that are choked with trees that blew down as a result of the many fires that burned through parts of Montana last year. 

Our work doesn’t just benefit the users of these trails; it also benefits nearby communities that profit from those trail users, who come from around the state and the rest of the world to enjoy our public lands and spend money at our hotels, restaurants, shops, and other businesses while they’re at it. Montana’s $7 billion outdoor recreation economy depends on public land access, and public land access depends on maintaining and creating trails. 

Woefully underfunded by Congress, the Forest Service unfortunately hasn’t been able to keep up on trail maintenance for several years and now relies on organizations such as ours to step in and help fill the backlog of maintenance on 14,000 miles of trail in Montana. The Challenge Cost Share Agreement and partnership that we have with the Forest Service are aligned with the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act. This act was signed into law in 2016 and identifies volunteers as being part of the solution to help the Forest Service address deferred maintenance needs and do more with the little funding it receives.

The Recreation Trail Program (RTP) dollars we receive through Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks come from the Federal Highway Trust Fund and represent a portion of the motor fuel tax. Though the funds originate at the federal level, they are administered by the state through a competitive process where grant applications are evaluated and awarded by the State Trails Advisory Committee. Several organizations and public agencies throughout the state compete for and receive RTP grants, with dollars being equally distributed for use on motorized and non-motorized trails. The RTP funds received by any organization are carefully documented and tracked by the state. 

RTP grants require a minimum of a 20% match from the sponsored entity. Last year, MWA went well beyond the minimum and provided an 80% match on our RTP grant. The majority of our match was comprised of in-kind labor – the volunteer trail maintenance that’s such an essential part of preserving access to our public lands. 

We are extremely grateful for every cent of dedicated stewardship funding that we receive. That’s why we not only stretch those dollars as far as they will go to improve access to public lands, but we add layers of value to those dollars along the way.

Thank you for making our trail stewardship work possible. 

- Matt Bowser, MWA stewardship director