User groups bridge the maintenance gap on Methow Valley trails
By Laurelle Walsh
The next time you admire the view of October’s golden larches from one of the valley’s premiere high-country trails, consider that a volunteer trail crew helped to make your experience possible.
The U.S. Forest Service has a large backlog of neglected trails, and volunteer labor is one resource that should be tapped to help the agency catch up, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The Methow Valley Ranger District (MVRD) is ahead of the game, because trail user groups like the Washington Trails Association, the Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen, the Methow Chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and the Coulee Riders Motorcycle Association have been helping to bridge the trail-maintenance gap for several decades.
“The handwriting is on the wall as far as the Forest Service and finances,” said Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen’s trail boss Bill Ford. “What we see is probably going to get worse, but we can help make a dent in it and keep things going on the trails.”
“Volunteers have become a vital part of trying to fill the gap between the amount of work needed, and the funding we receive for Forest Service trail crews,” said Recreation and Wilderness Program Manager Jennifer Zbyszewski. In fact, volunteer labor accounted for more than 40 percent of the MVRD’s trail work hours in 2012, she said.
In addition, pledged volunteer hours make the ranger district more competitive when applying for grants – the major source of trail funding for the district – and the monetary value of those hours applies to matching funds when grants are awarded, Zbyszewski said.
A nationwide problem
The GAO found that “the Forest Service has more miles of trail than it has been able to maintain,” according to the report released in June. Nationwide, the Forest Service admits that only one-quarter of its 158,000 miles of trail meet the agency’s standards, and that “at least some maintenance” was accomplished on about 37 percent of those miles.
Locally, the MVRD’s trails fare somewhat better. Some of its 1,200 miles of trails are maintained on alternate years, while others, “especially spur trails, or trails in fire or bug-kill areas,” are not being maintained at all, according to Morgan Hartsock, lead forestry technician and trails manager for the district. Hartsock estimates the ranger district “actively maintains” some 500 to 600 miles of trail.
The GAO recommends a volunteer solution for the forest agency’s woes, stating that “to keep up with its maintenance goals in the short term and reduce its maintenance backlog,” the Forest Service should better utilize its volunteer resources by improving collaboration with and management of volunteers.
MVRD’s trails program
The MVRD’s trail management approach is to concentrate resources on the most highly used trails, major access “trunk trails” such as Thirtymile, Andrews Creek, Middle Fork of the Pasayten, Billy Goat and the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as trails along Highway 20 that attract a lot of visitors, Zbyszewski said. “We spread the money” – about 3.3 percent of the ranger district’s total budget – “as far as it will go.”
Around 35 percent of MVRD’s trail operation, maintenance and construction budget comes from congressional appropriations, and around 5 percent from recreation pass sales, with grant funding – mainly from the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office – making up the remaining 60 percent of the trail budget.
Congressional funding for trail maintenance has “substantially decreased from levels in the 1980s and ’90s,” when grants were rare and recreation passes did not exist, while the cost of wages and supplies has gone up, according to Zbyszewski.
Plus, before the Twisp and Winthrop ranger districts merged into the Methow Valley Ranger District around the year 2000, “each had relatively large trail crews, and those crews were able to perform considerably more trail maintenance than we can now,” Zbyszewski pointed out.
Major wildfires in the last decade have exacerbated the problem by diverting the district’s attention from annual trail maintenance to restoring burned areas, reducing hazards and providing safe access.
“So much of what we do is reactive, dealing with winter blowdown and spring runoff problems, mudslides and safety concerns,” said Hartsock. “It takes a lot of resources just to get trails open each year.”
For example, last spring’s opening of the Andrews Creek trail 12 miles to Andrews Pass took a saw crew six days to clear fallen logs off the trail, Hartsock said. And thanks only to grant money following the wildfires of the early 2000s, was he able to pay an eight-person crew to brush out about 11 of those miles.
Local groups step up
One way user groups can pitch in is to “adopt” a trail. The Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen maintain the 15-mile Twisp River Trail that is used by hikers, bikers and horse riders alike. Each year on National Trails Day – the first Saturday in June – anywhere from 25 to 50 volunteers come out to clear fallen trees, branches and brush, move rocks and clear water bars, according to the chapter’s trail boss Bill Ford. And chapter members revisit the trail throughout the year to clear any obstructions, he said.
“It’s great when a group adopts a trail,” said Zbyszewski, “we know that that trail will be taken care of.”
Although the ranger district has no formal program for adopting a trail, Zbyszewski said a group can “just come in and start a conversation about establishing a volunteer agreement.”
Volunteers are allowed to use hand tools only – saws, shovels, loppers and pickaxes – on trails unless they have completed the Forest Service’s chainsaw program.
Eight or nine members of the Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen, including Ford, go through annual chainsaw recertification in order to accomplish the bigger jobs, like bucking fallen trees and building bridges, that the chapter takes on each year.
A sample of the Back Country Horsemen’s contributions over the years includes replacing the East Fork Buttermilk bridge in 2008, replacing the South Creek bridge in 2010, maintaining the Twisp River Horse Camp, beginning work on a new horse camp at Loup Loup, and clearing a path through the 2011 mudslide that obliterated the War Creek trailhead.
The Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen typically donate 500 or more hours of labor and thousands of dollars on trail projects each year.
“It’s a labor of love,” said Ford. “It’s just a matter of giving back.”
Ranger district trails manager Hartsock credits both the Back Country Horsemen and local mountain bikers with helping to clear the West Fork of the Methow River trail of thick regrowth following the 2003 Needles Creek Fire. “It was a jungle before we started,” Hartsock said. “I had to dismount my horse because it was so thick he didn’t know where I wanted him to go.”
Since then the Methow Chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance has established a volunteer agreement with the MVRD. Just one year old and 60 members strong, the Methow Chapter started as a “loose group of mountain bikers who wanted to work with landowners to help maintain and hopefully improve trails in our area,” according to chapter president Merle Kirkley.
The Methow Chapter has identified trails that mountain bikers are using, legitimately or not, and wants to work with the Forest Service to make those trails official, said trail coordinator Michael Pritchard. And utilizing the volunteer labor of its members, the Methow Chapter of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance is “making sure the Forest Service system trails are rideable, even if the agency is unable to maintain them to our standards,” Pritchard said.
In keeping with the MVRD’s trail management approach, the Methow Chapter is trying to prioritize higher-use trails to get “more bang for our buck,” said Pritchard.
Working with the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Methow Chapter members learned the properties of good trail design, such as water shedding, turn radius and tread width, and used that knowledge to address safety issues on several Sun Mountain trails.
At recent “Second Sunday” work parties, Methow Chapter volunteers brushed out part of the Cedar Creek trail in August, and partnered with the ranger district in September to fix drainage issues on the multi-user Foggy Dew trail. On Oct. 13, chapter members will work again with the MVRD on the Pasayten Drive/Bryant Butte trail in support of a Forest Service trail development grant in that area.
“Historically, the Forest Service laid an incredible trail network,” said Pritchard. “We’ve come to take it for granted somewhat. I hope we can build community appreciation and awareness of the incredible trails and the huge amount of work that goes into building them.”