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Communities | Environment

Trails Of Trouble As Maintenance Slides In Wilderness Areas

BOISE, Idaho — Some federal budget cuts can be found in places you might not be looking: deep in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest.

Hikers and horse packers seeking adventure and solitude are also encountering frustration over the state of disrepair of recreational trails in wilderness areas.

Shirley Williamson of Boise, Idaho is hoping not to be one of those hikers who comes across a bad stretch of trail this summer.

Williamson is at her kitchen table, looking over a topographic map while she plans a summertime backpacking venture with friends in one of her favorite destinations: the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in central Idaho.

In recent weeks, people have been warning her that some of the trails she wants to visit are littered with fallen trees, large rocks and debris swept onto the trail by rain storms.

“That would be frustrating to have to detour a route in order to avoid a lot of downfall,” says Williamson, a teacher who likes to spend her summer months exploring Idaho’s wilderness areas.

It can also be potentially dangerous, trying to make your way over or around downed trees or washed out trail on steep terrain — especially if the results are a rolled ankle that won’t get medical attention without first enduring one or more days hiking back to civilization.

More than 11 million acres of the Pacific Northwest’s mountains, forests, and open range are wilderness areas – roadless preserves where development and mechanized vehicles and equipment are prohibited.

NW Wilderness Totals by State

  • Idaho: 4,523,215 acres
  • Washington: 4,462,822 acres
  • Oregon: 2,474,435 acres

*Total: 11,460,472 acres

Thousands of miles of trails penetrate deep forests and traverse mountains in these these wilderness areas. And increasingly, those miles of trail are obstructed by the kind of downfall that Williamson is hoping to avoid.

Craig Gehrke with the Wilderness Society in Idaho says the deeper recreationists venture into the backcountry, the more likely they are to find neglected trails.

“The deadfall gets worse and worse and worse” the deeper an outdoor adventurer goes, Gehrke says.

Some people are directing their frustration at the federal government, which is responsible for maintaining trails on designated wilderness areas.

Frank Church Wilderness Trails

  • Northfork Ranger District: 460 miles
  • Middlefork Ranger District: 829 miles
  • Nez Perce District: 160 miles
  • Krassel Ranger District: 412 miles

4 National Forests: the Salmon Challis, Payette, Nez Perce, and Bitterroot

At nearly 2.4 million acres, it’s the second largest wilderness area in the lower 48 and by far, the largest in the Northwest. It’s located in the heart of Idaho - a preserve of towering mountains, gray wolves, mountain lions, and the Salmon River.

The U.S. Forest Service has cut the number of employees who maintain wilderness area trails in the Northwest. Andy Brunell is with the Forest Service based in Idaho.

“We have seen a reduction in funds on some of these districts. It’s a function obviously of the restraint on a federal agency budgets through US Congress appropriations,” Brunell says.

It’s not just the trails in the Frank that are in a state of disrepair. Jonathan Guzzo with the Washington Trails Association says trail maintenance is underfunded to the tune of $50 million in Washington and Oregon’s wilderness areas.

Guzzo says he worries that a failure to repair trails could force the U.S. Forest Service to close some of them for safety issues.

The Wilderness Society’s Gehrke says that’s not acceptable.

“I would just plain outright argue that the forest service needs to take a bigger piece of their general budget money and put it toward recreation and trails because I think the recreation experience in a wilderness area can’t be duplicated on state lands for example,” he says.

One avenue the Forest Service has taken is to use volunteers. During the spring months, volunteers with the Student Conservation Association clear rocks, dirt and logs that block trail’s on a remote stretch of the Frank Church Wilderness. Repairing trails with shovels and picks is slow and physically demanding.

Volunteers are only allowed to use primitive tools so they don’t detract from the wilderness experience. Instead of clearing fallen trees with solitude-ripping chainsaws, they put their backs and muscles into the teamwork required by a two-man crosscut saw.

John Burns with the Salmon River Backcountry Horsemen says these primitive tools make for slow-going progress. “We’ve actually had contracts up there where the use of a wheelbarrow is prohibited,” he says. Burns wants the Forest Service to allow volunteers to use mechanized tools like chainsaws to increase efficiency. The Forest Service already has the ability to to this. But the Wilderness Society’s Gehrke says it would not benefit those who come here to enjoy nature. “Until the forest service comes and tells me they need to get into the Frank Church and do work with chainsaws…I’m not buying it,” he says.

Unless trail repairs speed up, thousands of acres in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness are getting more difficult for people like Burns to access.

That’s why his groups is among several in Idaho that want state lawmakers to pass a non-binding measure that calls for the federal government to declare the Frank Church Wilderness a disaster area.

The goal: put the wilderness area in a better position to get more funding for trail maintenance. The Wilderness Society’s Gehrke doesn’t think the answer is to declare any wilderness a disaster area.

“I think from an ecological standpoint, they are the place we see nature functioning as it’s supposed to. Fires, floods - whatever you want to call it,” he says, explaining that these events are a natural part of what happens in wilderness — not disasters. But he is concerned about the state of the trail system.

Gehrke, like many others in Oregon and Washington, is concerned about the backlog of needed work. A problem that’s likely to get worse with more budget cuts in the coming months and years.