A federal report has found that budget limitations are turning many Forest Service footpaths into trails to nowhere. The report suggests that a combination of trail prioritization and volunteer help could put forests back on the path to timely maintenance.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office last week issued an analysis that found that only a quarter of Forest Service trails met agency standards, and more than a third of the 158,000 miles of trails needed some sort of maintenance.

The problem is that, as of fiscal year 2012, the Forest Service has an $80 million annual budget for maintenance and other agency programs, but the money necessary to maintain trails annually and fund capital improvements is estimated at $210 million.

The Northern Region, including Montana and parts of Idaho and the Dakotas, has the most trail miles at more than 29,000 and receives between $9,000 and $10,000 annually to maintain them.

Add the current backlog of maintenance estimated at $314 million and the Forest Service balance sheet is severely out of balance. It has continued to worsen since 1989, when the accountability office found a $200 million backlog.

As a result, deadfall blocks many trail sections while others are washed out, eroded by streams or buried under rockslides.

“So many enjoy the outdoors using trails, but we heard story after story of trails being closed,” said Wilderness Society spokesman Paul Spitler. “As the people are heading out to enjoy the Fourth, some won’t be able to get where they want to go.”

The Forest Service can offset some of that deficit with the help of volunteers.

Several organizations, including the Backcountry Horsemen of America, volunteer to maintain trails.

Backcountry Horsemen spokesman Jim McGarvey said his organization of 14,000 members clears more than 20,000 miles of trail a year.

“That’s been estimated at a value of around $12 million in labor, and that doesn’t count the $2 million to $4 million of out-of-pocket costs for our members in terms of gas and horse care,” McGarvey said. “But even with modernization, the pack string is invaluable for getting supplies and equipment into some difficult country. Especially since the Forest Service has had to reduce some of its pack strings.”

But sporadic volunteer hours amount to a small fraction of what’s needed.

Concerned about the diminishing conditions of trails, Spitler, McGarvey and others contacted some members of Congress — including Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Rep. James Moran, R-Virginia, both ranking members of the committee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies — to request the study in November 2011.

“The instrumental legislator was (Rep. Cynthia) Lummis. She was the first to sign on, and once you have one, it gets easier,” McGarvey said.

Spitler said congressmen regularly request accountability office reports.

“The unusual thing in this case was that it was completed so quickly,” Spitler said. “I’d like to say it was due to the gravity of the subject matter, but it’s more likely that getting a request from the Interior committee chair carries some weight.”

After surveying Forest Service employees and crunching the numbers, the accountability office came up with some recommendations for the Forest Service to deal with the backlog in a world of budget sequestration.

The accountability office recommended that the Forest Service assess its trail system and eliminate trails that either receive little use or require excessive upkeep due to poor design. Managers should focus efforts on popular trails.

Former Forest Service employee Joe Gutkoski, who usually bushwhacks into the mountains, agrees that some trails should be closed, but he suggests that also applies to high-use areas.

“I think the GAO is correct — maybe we have too many trails,” Gutkoski said. “If some trails are overused, maybe they should stop maintaining those and focus on other trails.”

The report recommended a training program both for volunteers and the Forest Service employees who work with volunteers. The study found volunteers were sometimes unaware of agency standards for trails.

Spitler said it was important that a neutral report emphasized that additional resources are needed so that more money can be allocated to the Forest Service.

“I think it’s realistic that Congress will look at this seriously,” Spitler said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at 582-2638 or llundquist@dailychronicle.com. Follow her at @llundquist.

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