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Trails Of Trouble On Wild Land

Aaron Kunz

Some federal budget cuts can be found in places you might not be looking -- deep in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. For hikers and horse packers, frustration is mounting over the state of disrepair of recreational trails on public land.

The Northwest has more than 11-million acres of mountains, forests and other wild places designated as Wilderness Areas.

That amounts to thousands of miles of trails that lace their way through the wilderness.

Shirley Williamson of Boise, Idaho is one of them. As a school teacher she has two month a year during the summer to hike in some remote areas of central Idaho. She likes to plan ahead, sitting at her kitchen table she points out a marked trail on a topographic map of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. This is the place she hopes to backpack this summer. But it’s no sure thing; Friends have already told her some trails in the area are washed out or littered with fallen trees and rocks.

“And that would be frustrating to have to detour a route in order to avoid a lot of downfall," Williamson says.

Williamson  often hikes in the “Frank” -- as she and other locals call this sprawling wilderness area. In recent years, Williamson has had to find new routes to avoid  fallen timber -- A minor annoyance on a flat area of the wilderness.

“But if it’s on the side of a really steep hill and you’re traversing that hill, it can be potentially dangerous to have to try and either go under it, go over it or go around it," Williamson says.  The going-around-it part is probably the most dangerous if you are getting off of a steep trail."

A sprained ankle can quickly turn into a problem when you’re more than 10 miles deep into rugged backcountry.

The U.S. Forest Service is responsible for maintaining wilderness area trails. Andy Brunell is with the Forest Service, based in Idaho. He says the agency has cut the number of employees who do this work.

“At the local level, we have seen a reduction in funds on some of these districts," he says.  It’s a function obviously of the restraint on a federal agency budgets through US Congress appropriations."

It’s not just the trails in the “Frank” that are in a state of disrepair. Jonathan Guzzo is with the Washington Trails Association. He says the federal government is under-funding wilderness trail maintenance to the tune of $50-million dollars in Washington and Oregon.

Backcountry enthusiasts fear that over time, a failure to maintain trails could force the U.S. Forest Service to close some of them, in the name of public safety.

Craig Gehrke with the Wilderness Society in Idaho.

“ 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," Gehrke says.

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

You won’t hear the roar of chainsaws. That’s because mechanized tools and vehicles are banned in the name of preserving the wilderness experience.

Volunteers put their backs and muscles into the slow-going teamwork required by a two-man crosscut saw. it takes some getting used to.

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," Burns 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 Craig Gehrke with the Wilderness Society 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," Gehrke says.

That has left thousands of acres that backcountry inaccessible to horseback riders like John Burns because trails are unusable. He’s worried that even more wilderness will be impossible to reach by foot or horseback.

“What we are asking for is a shift in some attitudes and a shift in emphasis and priorities," Burns says.

Thats why some in Idaho have been asking state lawmakers to urge 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.

Craig Gehrke doesn’t think the answer is to declare the Frank -- or any wilderness --  a ‘disaster area.

“I think from an ecological standpoint, they are the place we see nature functioning as it’s supposed to," Gehrke says.  "Fires, floods - whatever you want to call it.”

Gehrke says these events are a natural part of what happens in wilderness -- they’re 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.

Copyright 2013 EarthFix