By Michelle Schmidtke
As a long-time hiker (50-plus years) and member of the Methow Valley chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington, I am saddened by the neglected condition of the U.S. Forest Service trails. Wildfires have been the cause of extensive damage the past 10 years, but the bigger issue is lack of funding of the USFS for trail work and maintenance, and in my opinion, the ban on chainsaw use for logging out trails in the wilderness by the USFS.
I recently went online to the Methow Valley Ranger district site to check on trail conditions prior to planning a trail ride. The reasons for closed or damaged trails were long and discouraging: trail not maintained for many years; trail abandoned; hundreds, even thousands (Hidden Lakes trail) of trees down; area severely burned; impassable to stock due to downed trees; burned bridges and boggy areas; tread washout and failing bridges; and for many trails, conditions unknown or closed due to current wildfires.
Wildfires have burned over 60% of the Pasayten Wilderness in the past 10 years, and they will continue to damage the trails in the backcountry. But we must find ways to mitigate the damage from wildfires and neglect or our trails will no longer exist. I applaud the efforts of many organizations in the Methow Valley that are working on the trails but changes at the federal level need to occur.
Trails could be listed in the national register of historic places. They qualify because most are over 50 years old and retain their historic character. If listed, maintaining them would be required by the federal government. Organizations that would employ thousands such as the Civilian Conservation Corps should be created and funded. Infrastructure money should be channeled into our public lands, funding recreation in general and trail building and maintenance in particular.
Efforts should be made to lift the ban on chainsaw use in USFS wilderness. Many don’t realize that the Park Service does use chain saws in the wilderness because the Department of the Interior interprets the Wilderness Act differently than the USDA, which manages the Forest Service.
Incidentally, the North Cascades National Park has a well-funded and large trail crew that maintains the trails in the park to a much higher standard than the Forest Service. One of the ways the Forest Service justifies neglect of the trails is downgrading their status to a much more primitive level.
More help needed
The Methow Valley chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen is looking for ways to at least get conditional permitting to use chainsaws on some of the most severely damaged trails in the Chelan Sawtooth and Pasayten Wildernesses. They are also funding crews from the Washington Conservation Corp to log and brush out specific trails and working with the Methow Valley Trails Collaborative to work on trail clearing projects. Individual members of the MVBCH put in hundreds of hours logging out trails with chainsaws, and in the wilderness, cross-cut saws.
But we need everyone’s help. Those of you who use and love our backcountry trails must pitch in with trail work and write to your congressmen about the urgent need to fund the USFS so it can fund their trail crews. If any of the above ideas resonate with you, urge your congressmen to consider them or many of our trails will be lost forever.
Michelle Schmidtke is a native of Washington state and a Methow Valley dweller the past 10 years. She graduated from Washington State University’s college of veterinary medicine and practiced on Whidbey Island before moving to the Methow, where she is mostly retired.