Photo courtesy of Natalie Kuehler
Guides and outfitters are part of the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative.

Trails Collaborative represents wide range of recreational users

By Ann McCreary

More than 1,000 miles of trails on national forest lands around the Methow Valley lead to spectacular landscapes. Unfortunately, many of those trails are no longer passable because there is no money to maintain them.

A newly formed local organization hopes to help open trails and maintain them for the enjoyment of hikers, bikers, horseback riders, skiers and motorized users including snowmobilers, dirt bikers and ATV riders.

The Methow Valley Trails Collaborative (MVTC) was formed last year to represent a wide range trail users, and to improve and maintain trails around the Methow Valley.

The group’s first priority is working to help the Methow Valley Ranger District achieve designation by the U.S. Forest Service as a “Priority Area” for trail maintenance under a new federal law called the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, which was passed last November.

Priority Area designation would mean that the Methow Valley Ranger District would receive additional funding and resources, and be free to experiment with new ways of using volunteers and community partners to clear and maintain trails, said Natalie Kuehler, a member of the MVTC steering committee.

“We want to increase trail maintenance by 100 percent in the Priority Areas by innovative land management and partnership approaches,” Kuehler said. The Methow ranger district “is a huge area. There are a lot of trails to be worked on.”

The trails collaborative submitted a proposal to the Forest Service that seeks designation for the Methow Valley as Priority Area. At least nine and up to 15 Priority Areas will be chosen by the end of May.

The new federal law recognizes that budget limitations have caused an immense backlog in the maintenance of the Forest system’s recreational trail system nationwide.

The act requires the Forest Service to develop a strategy that uses volunteers, partners, and outfitters and guides to play a larger role in maintaining trails on Forest Service land.

“If the Methow Valley Ranger District is selected as a Priority Area, the MVTC — as an umbrella organization for a diverse group of trail users and volunteers — is perfectly poised to immediately begin working with the ranger district to address the backlog of trail work and restoration of sustainable access that is long overdue in the iconic North Cascades,” the MVTC proposal stated.

Maintenance backlog

Last year, the Methow Valley Ranger District was only able to log out about 300 miles of the more than 1,000 miles in the district’s trail system. And routine maintenance, like clearing vegetation and tread and drainage work, has become almost impossible to support, according to the proposal.

Large sections of trails leading to and within the Pasayten Wilderness have become impassable, and stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail have become unsafe for hikers and horseback riders, MVTC said.

Reduced access to system trails means that more people are concentrated in areas that are accessible. These areas are being “loved to death,” according to MVTC.

Examples are Maple Pass, where fragile vegetation has been trampled and Snowy Lakes, where alpine lakes are suffering from overuse, Kuehler said.

Designation as a Priority Area would allow the Methow Valley Ranger District “to be creative in how it engages with partners,” Kuehler said. “It would make it easier to work with the Forest Service.”

Groups like the Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen already provide hundreds of volunteer hours to help with trail maintenance, Kuehler said.

The group has submitted a request for an exemption to the prohibition on chain saws in wilderness areas. The request, which has the support of MVTC, asks for permission to use chainsaws to clear trails in wilderness for one week in spring and one week in fall, Kuehler said.

The new federal trails act also allows the Forest Service to use firefighting crews to assist in trail maintenance when they are not on fighting fires, Kuehler said.

Kuehler is an attorney who worked previously for the National Forest Foundation, which has named the Methow Valley a “Treasured Landscape.” She said that recognition, and potential designation as a Priority Area, helps the new trails collaborative raise money for trail maintenance.

The MVTC membership includes representatives of 33 organizations. Members represent the Forest Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, state parks, the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, Okanogan County Commission, and local chambers of commerce.

Trail user groups include Washington Trails Association, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Methow Trails, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, the Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen, Methow Snowmobile Association, Rendezvous Huts, guides and outfitters, backcountry skiing, mountaineering, trail running, dirt biking and ATV clubs.