Time for Congress to Quit Treating Our Trails Like Dirt
Congress needs to take action on shrinking trails budgets
From the ancient Old North Trail to the centuries-old paths that Lewis & Clark traversed over the Rocky Mountains, trails have a long and legendary history in Montana. Over time, Big Sky Country has changed a great deal, but our need for trails and our love for the public lands they cross have remained constant.
For this reason, Montana Wilderness Association works hard to help land managers maintain trail access to and through unforgettable places, from the Bob Marshall Wilderness to Yellowstone National Park and many other places between and beyond. Through our CDT Montana program, MWA is focused on maintaining and constructing the northern third of the Continental Divide Trail, which extends 1,000 miles through rugged, remote and remarkable terrain that we call our backyard.
Unfortunately, our trail tradition, including the CDT, is under threat and, as a result, our access to wild places is endangered.
Since 2009, Congress has reduced Forest Service budgets by 48% overall in Region 1, the region that manages all 10 national forests in Montana. These budget cuts have created real consequences at the local level, where trail crews have shrunk to a vanishing point in some districts during tough years. And if we continue to “borrow” from trails budgets to pay for wildfire in the future, then the consequences shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone: our well for trail funding will run completely dry.
What do Montanans think about this? As a recent poll by Colorado College shows, 63% of Montanans believe that a lack of funding creates a real problem for properly managing American public lands, which fuel $5.8 billion in economic spending and create 64,000 jobs in Big Sky Country.
The solution to this problem lies not in the hands of public servants and land stewards within the Forest Service, but with Congress, an institution that had a public approval rating of just 11% last year.
In Montana, we need all three members of our congressional delegation to help make our trails a national priority by giving the Forest Service the funding it needs and deserves to do its job. This work requires a long-term effort, but there are some initial steps that Congress can take this year, which include passing these three pieces of legislation:
- Wildfire Disaster Funding Act: In short, this legislation would separate fire funding from recreation funding, alleviating the need to rob Peter to pay Paul during high-cost fire seasons. Sen. Tester, Sen. Daines, and Rep. Zinke all support this bill, but it failed to pass last year because too many Senators tried to add in too many other requests. We encourage our delegation to work together to pass a clean version of the bill as soon as possible.
- National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act: This policy piece – also supported by our entire delegation - would allow agency partners and outfitters to more easily contribute their time and resources to assist in trail maintenance, freeing up agency crews to work on other, more technical projects that volunteers might not be able to handle. Groups and partners such as our own CDT Montana program, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Montana Backcountry Horsemen, Professional Wilderness Outfitters Association, and Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (among others) are already working hard to steward our trails. This bill will draw even more volunteers to this important work.
- Recreation's Economic Contribution Act: This legislation, which has support from Sen. Daines and Sen. Tester, would require the federal government to measure the outdoor recreation industry’s impact on the U.S. economy by counting recreation spending as part of our Gross Domestic Product. How can we expect our great outdoors to become a national priority when our nation fails to accurately measure the economic impact of outdoor recreation? We can’t. That’s why we need this bill.
We encourage all Montanans to contact Sen. Tester, Sen. Daines, and Congressman Ryan Zinke with a request to not only support, but also prioritize these bills. Perhaps more importantly, encourage them to put an end to the budget-cutting trend on our national forests. Share your stories and memories with them. Our outdoor adventures are priceless, but losing access to wilderness, public lands, and our trails is costly on so many levels. It’s time for us to quit treating our trails like dirt and start treating them for what they are: priceless connections to Montana’s time-honored outdoor traditions.
- Shannon Freix, CDT Montana program director