By Scott Jones, Esq.
Last year the Government Accountability Office concluded that only 20% of the US Forest Service trail network was financially sustainable. This sounds ominous for trails, but this conclusion may not be all that applicable to multiple use trails given the vigorous OHV registration programs that many states have developed to fund trails on federal lands. We need to make sure that all federal land managers understand the scope of this study in order to avoid unnecessary closures and allow actual resolution of this issue.
Understanding the scope of the study is critical to remedying this management question and protecting multiple usage. The GAO study addressed all trails, including non-motorized trails in designated Wilderness, which the GAO study found accounts for 20% of the USFS trail network. While the GAO found Wilderness trails account for 20% of all trail mileage, Wilderness visitation accounts for only 3.3% of visitor days to USFS lands nationally, which results in a significant imbalance in supply and demand for these opportunities. While there is a significant oversupply of these opportunities, maintaining this oversupply is expensive due to management limitations on methods of maintenance that can be employed. Trail maintenance of any kind is always easier, cheaper and safer when mechanized devices are used and these are prohibited in Wilderness areas.
Throughout the western United States the motorized community has adopted voluntary registration programs to help off-set the costs of maintaining multiple use routes, which is addressed in the GAO report. This funding supplement is often lost in overly brief summaries of the GAO report but is a critical point in resolving this management question. Often these voluntary registration programs provide significantly more money for trail maintenance in a steady and predictable manner for land managers than the Forest Service has available internally. Given that the programs are State specific, benefits of the motorized registration programs to the USFS will vary and are not completely discussed in the GAO report. However, there are certain programs such as the snowmobile grooming programs where the winter groomed routes available to all users are almost 100% funded by voluntary registrations of the motorized users. There is no similar program for the maintenance of Wilderness trails. Often any state funding for maintenance of Wilderness trails is very limited and highly fluctuating and there is only so much maintenance that can be performed by volunteers. This makes supporting the current oversupply of Wilderness routes very difficult to justify.
Resolving the USFS funding issues for trails is going to be a significant issue moving forward and is one that cannot be remedied by closing the trails that are sought after by most people and at least partially funded by the users. Resolution of this management issue should start with closing Wilderness trails that are not used and are exceptionally expensive to maintain and in bad need of maintenance. This is simply good management and the motorized community should not hesitate to address this resolution if there are discussions raised regarding the need to close motorized routes due to funding issues. Closing multiple use routes will never resolve the USFS funding issues and would impact large numbers of users for the benefit of a severely underutilized resource. .