Four national forests in Wyoming have teamed up in a pilot program to find new ways to address long-standing trail-maintenance problems facing the U.S. Forest Service.
The Bighorn, Medicine Bow, Shoshone and Bridger-Teton national forests formed the Wyoming Forest Gateway Community to participate in the program that will encourage volunteer trail maintenance. The group will be one of 15 entities that will explore how to keep trails open and safe.
The U.S. Forest Service manages more than 158,000 miles of trail nationwide, but recent audits show only 25 percent are maintained to meet safety and quality standards. The National Trails Stewardship Act of 2016 directed the budget-strapped agency to solve the backlog, at least in part, by bolstering volunteerism. The Wyoming forests and the other selected priority areas will lead the way.
Efforts kickoff with public meetings from 1 to 3 p.m. May 1 at Forest Service offices in Pinedale, Jackson, Lander, Cody, Laramie, Sheridan, Greybull and Buffalo.
The meetings are meant to gauge community interest and discuss which trail projects to prioritize and how to streamline the volunteer process, said Cindy Stein, Pinedale district recreation program manager and the Bridger-Teton representative for the program. Individuals and organizations interested in participating are encouraged to attend, she said.
The priority areas selected under the National Trail Stewardship Act don’t receive additional funding or personnel, Stein said. But the selection offers increased visibility for trail needs and a way to find new partners. Participation could also help win grant funding for projects, she said.
But for Stein, who has been with the Forest Service more than 30 years, one of the greatest benefits is raising awareness of trail needs.
“This is really energizing for us internally to say ‘Wow, people are looking at trails in our agency and saying this is a priority for the public,’ so it’s a priority for us,” she said.
In the last 15 years budgets have steadily declined and larger and more frequent forest fires have eaten up trail funding, Stein said.
Many forests have already shifted heavily to funding projects through partnerships and grants, Stein said.
“But even that can only do so much,” she said.
Forests across the country were invited to submit proposals in the first phase of the National Trails Stewardship Act implementation. Staff at several of Wyoming’s forests, realizing they’d be competing against one another, decided to join forces instead.
The initiative is a concerted effort to attract additional partners, but relying on volunteers is nothing new for most forests, said Kristie Salzmann, spokeswoman for the Shoshone National Forest.
“We already use volunteers to do trail work extensively around the forest,” she said. “We’ve always used them. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to get done what we have.”
The Shoshone National Forest is responsible for almost 1,000 miles of trail, many in remote areas and all subject to the elements. Crews can spend weeks working on a stretch of trail only to have a landslide take it out, Salzmann said.
While Salzmann didn’t have a specific number for the Shoshone National Forest, she estimated that the national statistic of 25 percent of trails meeting standards probably applied there.
Volunteers accomplish work that otherwise would be neglected. In 2017, volunteers, including trail maintenance crews, campground hosts and others donated more than 22,600 hours on the Shoshone. The volunteer work translated into more than $500,000 in savings for the forest, Salzmann said.
The Shoshone Backcountry Horsemen have volunteered on the forest for 25 years, said Rick Adair, a Wapiti resident and president of the group. They usually commit to cleaning at least 100 miles of trail each year. This year the group, which averages about 20 members who volunteer each year, took on 120 miles. They’ve maintained 1,200 miles and volunteered 11,000 hours since 2010. Everyone is aware the agency keeps facing budget cuts and has less resources for trail maintenance, Adair said.
“Most of us are connected to the forest and stewardship of the land is a responsibility we don’t take lightly,” he said.
The volunteers build corrals, but primarily they clear dead trees that block passage. In wilderness areas they use hand saws to cut downed timber. It’s hard, hot work, he said.
“We clean the trail and move to the next trail to be cleaned,” he said. “We see a lot of country that way. There are so many trails on the Shoshone National Forest you can ride for years and never ride the same trail.”
Selection as a priority area under the National Trails Stewardship Act puts the national spotlight on the Wyoming forests and could help garner additional organizational partners like the horsemen, Stein said.
Stein wants to explore ways to increase various forms of volunteering — from agency hosted trail days, to nongovernment organizations taking on projects, to individuals who with minimal training can contribute when they are out camping, backpacking or skiing. Even turning in trail reports can be a big help to the agency, Stein said.
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“We want to make volunteering easier,” she said.
The Bridger-Teton has more than 3,500 miles of trails spread across millions of acres. Keeping everything maintained likely won’t happen. Prioritization can also be a valuable way for the public to pitch in.
“We want the public to help us figure out how to emphasize quality over quantity,” she said.
The effort kicks off during the 50th anniversary year of the National Trails System Act, passed in 1968.
I applaud both the volunteers and agency personnel for developing strong partnerships to maintain beloved forest trails. That said, the success of these efforts should not be an excuse for inadequate funding of USFS wilderness and trails programs. Even planning and supervising volunteer groups take resources. Citizen volunteer groups can definitely enhance, but cannot replace, the valuable work of professional trail crews and wilderness managers.
“The National Trails Stewardship Act puts the national spotlight on the Wyoming forests and could help garner additional organizational partners like the horsemen”. This Act opens the doors not only to volunteers but it calls attention to Wyoming’s great wilderness. Hopefully, other sportmen’s groups and outdoor enthauists will step up and volunteer.