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Working the trails

Two wilderness areas in the Klamath National Forest are among 15 priority areas selected nationwide for needed trail maintenance.

The Trinity Alps and Marble Mountain wildernesses, both located in far Northern California, are among 15 priority areas scheduled for trail improvements by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. In making the announcement, a USDA press release said the work is scheduled to help address a more than $300 million trail maintenance backlog on national forests and grasslands.

The listing, however, does not provide funding. Still, Josh Veal, the Klamath's public affairs officer, said Forest officials are pleased with the listing because, "The first part of the process is identifying the areas and making them a priority. The important thing is they've been designated as priority areas."

Vest said forest staff will meet with volunteer groups, including the Backcountry Horsemen, in coming months to develop a list of trails in the two wilderness areas that need trail improvements. Trails in areas damaged by forest fires are expected to receive the highest priority.

Gabriel Howe, chairman of the Siskiyou Mountain Club, which does extensive trail maintenance work in Southern Oregon and far Northern California, said when funding is provided the group would be interested in performing trail work. In 2017, volunteers and interns with the Ashland-based group maintained and improved 118½ miles of trails, including large areas of the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Howe said plans for this year including a bridge project on the Illinois River and trail work in areas impacted by last year's Chetco Bar fire.

"The $300 million backlog is well documented," Howe said. As to improvements in the Marble Mountain and Trinity Alps, "I don't think they're in need more than anyplace else."

In the press release announcing the listing, officials said, "Focused trail work in these areas, bolstered by partners and volunteers, is expected to help address needed infrastructure work so that trails managed by Forest Service can be accessed and safely enjoyed by a wide variety of trails enthusiasts. About 25 percent of agency trails fit those standards, while the condition of other trails lag behind."

“Our nation’s trails are a vital part of the American landscape and rural economies, and these priority areas are a major first step in USDA’s on-the-ground responsibility to make trails better and safer," Perdue said in a statement.

"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," he added, noting, "This borrowing from within the agency interferes with other vital work, including ensuring that our more than 158,000 miles of well loved trails provide access to public lands, do not harm natural resources, and, most importantly, provide safe passage for our users.”

Being celebrated this year is the 50th anniversary of the National Trails Systems Act, which established a system of national scenic, historic and recreation trails.

"A year focused on trails presents a pivotal opportunity for the Forest Service and partners to lead a shift toward a system of sustainable trails that are maintained through even broader shared stewardship," according to the USDA release.

According to the release, the selected priority areas focus on trails, including those in the Trinity Alps and Marble Mountains, that meet the requirements of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act of 2016. The act calls for the designation of up to 15 high priority areas where a lack of maintenance has led to reduced public access; increased risk of harm to natural resources; public safety hazards; impassable trails; or increased future trail maintenance costs. The act also requires the Forest Service to “significantly increase the role of volunteers and partners in trail maintenance,” and to aim to double trail maintenance accomplished by volunteers and partners.

Shared stewardship, such as working with volunteers, to achieve on-the-ground results is part of the Forest Service’s approach to trail maintenance.

“Our communities, volunteers and partners know that trails play an important role in the health of local economies and of millions of people nationwide, which means the enormity of our trail maintenance backlog must be adequately addressed now,” Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke said in the release. “The agency has a commitment to be a good neighbor, recognizing that people and communities rely on these trails to connect with each other and with nature.”

Estimates indicate that more than 84 million people annually get outside to explore, exercise and play on trails across national forests and grasslands and visits. Forest Service figures indicate the activities annually help generate 143,000 jobs and more than $9 million in visitor spending.

Other national trail maintenance priority areas include:

Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Adjacent Lands, Montana: includes the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat, and Great Bear wilderness areas and most of the Hungry Horse, Glacier View, and Swan Lake Ranger Districts on the Flathead National Forest in northwest Montana on both sides of the Continental Divide. The area has more than 3,200 miles of trails, including about 1,700 wilderness miles.

Methow Valley Ranger District, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Washington: Methow Valley is surrounded by more than 1.3 million acres of Forest Service managed land, including trails through the Pasayten and Lake Chelan-Sawtooth Wilderness Areas and more than 130 miles of the Pacific Crest and Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trails.

Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Eagle Cap Wilderness, Idaho and Oregon: includes more than 1,200 miles of trail and the deepest river canyon in North America, the remote alpine terrain of the Seven Devil’s mountain range and 350,000 acres in the Oregon's Eagle Cap Wilderness.

Central Idaho Wilderness Complex, Idaho and Montana: includes 9,600 miles of trails through the Frank Church River of No Return; Gospel Hump; most of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness areas; portions of the Payette, Salmon-Challis, Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests; and most of the surrounding lands.

Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico: The trail’s 3,100 continuous miles follows the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada, including more than 1,900 miles of trails across 20 national forests.

Wyoming Forest Gateway Communities: Nearly 1,000 miles of trail stretch across the almost 10 million acres of agency-managed lands in Wyoming, which include six national forests and one national grassland.

Angeles National Forest, California: includes nearly 1,000 miles of trails immediately adjacent to the greater Los Angeles area where 15 million people live within 90 minutes.

Greater Prescott Trail System, Arizona: This 300-mile system of trails is a demonstration of work between the Forest Service and multiple partners.

Sedona Red Rock Ranger District Trail System, Coconino National Forest, Arizona: About 400 miles of trail provide a wide diversity of experiences with year-round trail opportunities, including world-class mountain biking and streamside hiking in the summer.

Colorado Fourteeners: Hundreds of thousands of hikers annually trek along over 200 miles of trail to access Colorado’s mountains higher than 14,000 feet. The Forest Service manages 48 of the 54 fourteeners, as they are commonly called.

Superior National Forest, Minnesota: more than 2,300 miles of forest trails have faced catastrophic events, including large fires and a major wind storm downed millions of trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1999. A similar storm in 2016 reached winds up to 85 mph, toppled trees and made the western 13 miles of Kekekabic Trail impassible.

White Mountain National Forest Partner Complex, Maine and New Hampshire: Approximately 600 miles of non-motorized trails are maintained by partners. Another 600 miles of motorized snowmobile trails are adopted and maintained by several clubs.

Southern Appalachians Capacity Enhancement Model, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia: 6,300-plus miles of trails include some of the country's most heavily used trails but only 28 percent meet agency standards.

Iditarod National Historic Trail Southern Trek, Alaska: In southcentral Alaska, the Southern Trek is bear more than half the state’s population. The Chugach National Forest and partners are restoring and developing more than 180 miles of the trail system, connecting the communities of Seward, Moose Pass, Whittier and Girdwood.

A hiker moves through the Trinity Alps Wilderness in far Northern California, one of 15 priority areas identified by the US Forest Service for trail work. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]