Photo courtesy of Methow Trails
The grant request for trail repairs was supported by a local collaborative effort.

Federal funds to support local volunteers in tackling a big backlog

By Ann McCreary

With more than 1,000 miles of trails, but funding to maintain only about 300 miles each year, the Methow Valley Ranger District has been chosen as a priority to receive additional resources to address a backlog of trail maintenance.

As one of 15 “priority areas,” around the nation, the Methow Valley Ranger District will be given additional funding and greater flexibility in using volunteers to help maintain trails that provide access to spectacular landscapes on 1.3 million acres managed by the district.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, recently announced the selection of 15 priority areas where trail maintenance on national forests and grasslands will be bolstered by money and volunteers.

“This is giving us the permission to explore new ways of getting the trail maintenance and trail work done on the ground and to be more efficient,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger.

The Methow ranger district has already broken ground on new strategies to preserve and develop trails, through a partnership with Methow Valley Trails Collaborative (MVTC). Formed two years ago, MVTC brings together a wide range of trail users with a common goal of improving and maintaining trails around the Methow Valley.

Several organizations — such as the Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen, the Washington Trails Association and the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance — provide hundreds of volunteer hours each year to help with trail maintenance in the Methow Valley Ranger District. The collaborative brings together those organizations and about 30 other trail user groups representing snowmobiling, backcountry skiing, horsemen, mountaineers, commercial guides and outfitters, trail running, dirt biking and ATV groups.

As a designated priority area, the Methow Valley Ranger District will have greater leeway to partner with volunteers from those trail user groups.

Liu said the district has already received about $16,000 “specifically to help build local capacity to be able to work on trails, as a result of the priority areas designation process.”

He said the funds will be used to support the trails collaborative and its work. That will include support for skills training such as chainsaw certification and trail construction techniques. The funds will also help the collaborative build a cache of tools for trail construction that will be available to members of the collaborative, Liu said.

Key partnership

The partnership with the trails collaborative was key to the district receiving priority area designation, Liu said. The priority designation is part of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, passed by Congress in 2016. The law requires the Forest Service to “significantly increase the role of volunteers and partners in trail maintenance.”

“The priority area designation is largely because of the Trails Collaborative’s work and their commitment to being partners with us in trail maintenance,” Liu said. “It a recognition by the Forest Service that trails are an important part of our management and recreation, and given our capacity we need to be developing these types of partnerships … to manage trails networks that meet public needs into the future.”

In addition to the user groups, the collaborative includes representatives of the Forest Service, state Department of Natural Resources, State Parks, Twisp and Winthrop, Okanogan County and local chambers of commerce.

The trails collaborative worked with the ranger district to submit a proposal to the Forest Service for priority area status. “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,” MVTC’s priority area proposal said.

The Methow ranger district is only able to log out about one-third of its trails, and routine maintenance like clearing vegetation, and tread and drainage work, has become almost impossible to support, MVTC said. Reduced access means that more people are concentrated in areas that are accessible, resulting in damage from overuse.

Redirected funds

Funding previously allocated for trail maintenance has been redirected in recent years to fighting wildfires on national forest lands. Fires like last year’s Diamond Creek Fire, which burned more than 128,000 acres in the Pasayten Wilderness, have resulted in even more trail maintenance issues, with trails blocked by huge numbers of fallen, burned trees.

“The application [for priority area designation] was submitted before the Diamond Creek Fire,” Liu said. “There are roughly 50 to 60 miles of trail in moderate or high-intensity burn areas in the Pasayten Wilderness” after the fire.

Those trails will need work to remove fallen trees and create drainage to mitigate runoff in fire-scarred areas. “We hope to be able to reduce the impact of the runoff we expect from heavy burns, but we won’t know if we’re going to be in there in time,” Liu said.

“The trail maintenance backlog was years in the making with a combination of factors contributing to the problem, including an outdated funding mechanism that routinely borrows money from programs, such as trails, to combat ongoing wildfires,” the Department of Agriculture said in announcing the priority areas.

Trails are a vital part of rural economies, like the Methow Valley, “a rural recreation-based community surrounded by more than 1.3 million acres managed by the Forest Service,” the Agriculture announcement said. The Methow ranger district includes trails in the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Areas, and more than 130 miles of the national Pacific Crest and Pacific Northwest trails.

In the priority areas, lack of maintenance has led to reduced access to public land, increased risk of harm to natural resources, public safety hazards, impassable trails, and increased future costs for trail maintenance, according to the Agriculture Department announcement.

“I am definitely celebrating over this designation,” said Natalie Kuehler, a former member of the MVTC steering committee. “Especially in these times of tight federal funding for things like trail maintenance, and following our tremendous fire damages recently and all the increased trail work that we will need to do over the next few years to maintain access through the burned areas.”

The Methow Valley Ranger District is the only priority area designated in Washington state. The other 14 priority areas for trail maintenance on Forest Service lands are located around the country, from Maine to California to Alaska.