The Bridger-Teton National Forest spans 3.4 million acres. Maintaining trails and facilities gets more difficult as more people visit the forest and its budget decreases each year. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

More and more people head to the Bridger-Teton National Forest to recreate each year. As visitors increase, though, the agency’s budget has declined, leaving trails, campgrounds and other facilities in disrepair.

The president’s proposed 2019 Forest Service budget calls for an 84 percent reduction in trail maintenance and improvement spending system-wide. The same proposal calls for the Forest Service to make do with 288 fewer full-time equivalent staffers working on trails — a 51 percent personnel cut. That leaves the B-T — pinched between rising demand and plummeting resources — in need of creative solutions and outside help.

One approach it is considering is a friends’ group, or a nonprofit organization that could raise money for projects the forest can’t fund alone.

Campgrounds originally built in the 1950s are seeing more visitors and larger RVs than the sites were designed to accommodate, said Linda Merigliano, recreation program coordinator on the Bridger-Teton.

There are concerns about campfires in developed and dispersed camping areas. A boat ramp in Snake River Canyon needs repair. There aren’t funds to address any of these problems.

The list goes on. And that’s just trying to maintain what’s already in place.

“There are ways we can assess these issues, but that takes some funding,” Merigliano said.

The Curtis Canyon road to popular Goodwin Lake washed out, but the forest’s road budget basically allows only for the necessary work on the Greys River Road, Fall Creek and a little on Granite Creek Road, she said.

“Granite Creek wasn’t graded until August last year and people were losing car parts along the way,” she said. “These are popular places, but we can’t do the maintenance. There’s some big-ticket items we need.”

Then there are the trails, many with “huge maintenance needs,” Merigliano said.

A nonprofit partner could help highlight the forest’s importance in the community, communicate its needs, raise funds and organize volunteers. The net result could be the completion of important projects that would otherwise remain undone.

Merigliano can rattle off a wish list — a citizen science program that could document forest conditions, wildlife, plants and recreation use; an ambassador at Shadow Mountain, a popular camping spot, who could talk to people about campfires and make sure people weren’t damaging the landscape; a volunteer program that could help coordinate efforts in less accessible areas of the forest.

The model isn’t unique. Nonprofit partner groups elsewhere focus on recruiting volunteers. Others act more like a charitable foundation, recruiting money for specific projects.

Merigliano would like a group that does some of both for the B-T, and builds awareness about the forest.

“We’re looking to create an organization that can really elevate the story about why these public lands matter,” Merigliano said.

Too often people don’t realize they use the Bridger-Teton National Forest, she said. People know the Wind River Mountains and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.

“But they have no clue those places are on the Bridger-Teton National Forest,” she said. “People know the places, but they don’t know the forest.”

The idea of a friends group has worked well for other national forests including in Oregon. Discover Your Forest has acted as a nonprofit partner with the Deschutes and Ochoco National Forests there for about five years, said Rika Ayotte, the organization’s executive director.

The number of visitors, specifically on the Deschutes, has increased, as budgets for staff and maintenance have decreased. At some of the most popular trailheads there’s been a 150 percent jump in users in the last six years, Ayotte said. Discover Your Forest has helped fill a need in terms of dollars and personpower for trail work on the forests. The nonprofit runs retail stores that benefit the forests, manages donations and writes grants to fund forest projects.

Some people donate money for specific projects. One family, wanting to honor a family member who died, donated money and time to build a boardwalk at Todd Lake. The lake is especially popular for wildflower viewing, but in the spring the area is muddy and people traipsing around can degrade the landscape, Ayotte said.

Discover Your Forest recently launched a dollars-for-trails program in which patrons can add $1 to purchases at local businesses to go to forest trail maintenance. The program has already brought in $60,000 for trails, which a multi-use stakeholders group Discover Your Forest invests in needed improvements. Ayotte said the group expects to raise up to $250,000 a year within five years.

One of the most important services the friends’ group provides is volunteer management, Ayotte said. The organization co-manages more than 2,000 volunteers on the forest which equates to $2.5 million in donated labor each year, she said.

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“People in our community want better trails and are willing to support those with volunteer hours and donations,” Ayotte said.

Merigliano thinks people in the communities near the Bridger-Teton also want to help.

The Bridger-Teton’s friends’ group is still in the planning stages, although forest service representatives met with the Grand Teton Association, a nonprofit that supports Grand Teton National Park, to discuss a potential partnership.

Merigliano said a group for the forest might need three separate chapters to tackle specific stewardship needs in the Teton/Gros Ventre area, in the Wyoming Range and in the Wind River Mountains. A board would oversee the organization, and forest service staff would take on an advisory role.

A coordinator, who would serve as a director and community liaison, will likely be needed to get the organization started, work on messaging and prioritize needs.  

“What’s happened to date, clearly there is some energy around having some kind of organization that can help the Bridger-Teton and support public lands,” Merigliano said. “There is high interest in getting this off the ground.”

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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