The Custer Gallatin National Forest typically grades Jackson Creek Road no. 977 once every year, but when snow melts and rain falls, cars and trucks carve deep ruts into the mud, and the grooves last throughout the seasons.
Water saturates the road, and the ruts get deeper as traffic increases. It doesn’t help that soils along the road are refined, and there are few inside ditches to lead water off the dirt and into culverts.
Even when Jackson Creek Road is in poor condition, ATVers, hunters, hikers, snowmobilers and skiers still recreate along it, even if they have to park at a pullout along the county road instead of a parking lot inside the national forest boundary.
“For a front-country primary access road, this is our worst road, hands down,” said Wendi Urie, Bozeman District recreation program manager for the Custer Gallatin National Forest.
Fixing the road at the foot of the Bangtail Mountains isn’t cheap, but even with some financial and logistical constraints, a labor shortage and high competition for heavy equipment operators, work there is set to begin on Monday.
Officials are directing $250,000 in newly-secured Great American Outdoors Act funds toward the first phase of repairs, where they’ll fix some of the drainage issues by adding a new surface bed, five to six new culverts and a gravel base. They might carve out some new pull outs too.
The work will occur along the first 4.5 miles of the Forest Service road, which mainly crosses through private land along an easement. The first phase of repairs will extend to the Jackson Creek Trailhead.
People can expect some delays when crews are placing gravel on the road and installing culverts, according to Urie. Hunters who get up early will likely avoid the delays on the way up, but they’ll need to factor them in on their way down, she said.
Corey Lewellen, Bozeman District Ranger for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said the Great American Outdoors Act provided his staff with an opportunity to do an incredible amount of infrastructure work.
Because of the law, a wide range of deferred maintenance projects are moving ahead in the national forest and others across southwest Montana. Crews are fixing cabins, improving roads, trails and campgrounds, replacing bridges and toilets and addressing a range of infrastructure needs.
Great American Outdoors Act funding has allowed land management agencies to begin to address the country’s more than $25 billion deferred maintenance backlog. It’s a monumental contribution, but there is a lot more work to be done, according to Lewellen.
“We’re incredibly fortunate, and we’re grateful to have this funding because we have a lot of deferred maintenance,” he said. “We’re going to do the best we can and we look forward to hopefully having more opportunities in the future.”
Congress passed and former U.S. President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act in the summer of 2020. The law guaranteed full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, but it also directed billions toward deferred maintenance needs on public lands.
Through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, about $900 million in revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling leases are being put toward protecting habitat, conserving land and improving recreation opportunities on state and federal public land every year.
Apart from that, $9.5 billion has been set aside for five federal agencies to tackle the country’s deferred maintenance backlog. The money is available through fiscal year 2025.
The National Park Service is poised to receive 70% of the funds, while the U.S. Forest Service is raking in about 15%. The Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Indian Education are each collecting 5% of the total package.
In competing with other national forests for the funding, the Custer Gallatin National Forest did well, according to Lewellen. Staff are planning and carrying out a range of GAOA-funded projects across its 1.8 million acres.
In the Bozeman Ranger District, contracted crews are about to launch the first phase of work on Jackson Creek Road, but Forest Service crews have already reconditioned 35 miles of trails, including 15 miles on Buck Creek Trail near Big Sky, Urie said.
Next year, staff hope to put more Great American Outdoors Act funds toward single track trails in the Bridger and Bangtail ranges. Crews plan to smooth out tread and improve drainage systems, according to Urie.
Another $372,000 is going toward replacing deteriorating toilets and improving existing toilets across the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Urie said crews have already replaced some toilets at the Battle Ridge Campground, Blackmore Camp and Rat Flat dispersed camping area.
Officials hope to add another toilet near the Brackett Creek Trailhead in the Bridgers, and Urie predicts it will become a roadside rest area for people commuting from the Shields Valley to Bozeman.
At least $25,000 in Great American Outdoors Act funding will go toward replacing the Markley Bridge — popularly known as the “Green Bridge” — which crosses over the Gallatin River from U.S. Highway 191 near Deer Creek.
Urie said the replacement is needed because the old bridge no longer meets full highway legal status.
“This coming year we will work on design and implementation,” she said. “Ideally it will be a two-way bridge.”
Many of the paved roads in the Bozeman Ranger District have long needed improvements, and this summer, crews fixed potholes and performed chip sealing. They worked on Spanish Creek Road and Swan Creek Road, as well as the Moose and Swan creek campgrounds.
National forest officials have five years to spend the Great American Outdoors Act money that’s allocated to them, but it often takes a while to receive those funds and wade through contracting processes, Urie said.
To fund future phases of the Jackson Creek Road project, they’ve applied for another round of Great American Outdoors Act funds. While they have a high degree of confidence they’ll receive the money, they haven’t yet heard whether they were selected.
Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan, a spokesperson for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, added that the new funding is addressing deferred maintenance needs far beyond the Bozeman Ranger District.
About $3.5 million from the Great American Outdoors Act is covering the paving of the Yellowstone Shortline Trail — a 9-mile multi-use pathway that will extend from the border of Yellowstone National Park to the Montana-Idaho border at Reas Pass.
The Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Hebgen Ranger District is leading the effort alongside the Yellowstone Historic Center and some volunteers. About $1.6 million in partner funding is contributing to the paving.
Also in the Hebgen district, crews plan to replace the South Fork Madison Bridge outside of West Yellowstone. The bridge is 70 years old, and while it’s not in terrible condition, it has hit the extent of its life, according to Leuschen-Lonergan.
The Great American Outdoors Act is also funding trail maintenance in the entire Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness complex. Crews started the work last summer, and they are aiming to complete it on hundreds of miles of trails, she said.
“We have a lot of excellent work being done on the ground out there, and hopefully it provides a more welcoming and inclusive experience for folks who want to come and enjoy the Custer Gallatin National Forest,” Leuschen-Lonergan said.
Nearby, in southwest Montana’s chunk of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Great American Outdoors Act dollars are funding trail maintenance, campground upgrades, bridge work and more, according to Gail Plavonic, Dillon District recreation program manager.
“This is critical funding to us, and it is extremely appreciated because we feel that a lot of times, recreation is underfunded,” she said. “I’ve witnessed over the years just the insufficient amounts of funding we have and the mass quantities of work that’s required to serve the public.”
A lack of staffing and funding has put trail work on the back burner for many years, but the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act recently helped crews conduct 100 miles of trail maintenance in the Dillon Ranger District, Plavonic said.
“When you have rec. crews consisting of one or two people in a district, in a season you just can’t accomplish a lot,” she said. “The work just builds up over time. Your trails just have piles upon piles of trees and deferred maintenance that gets neglected.”.
Officials are in the process of writing contracts and agreements to accomplish future GAOA-funded work in the Madison Ranger District, and they are already planning to rebuild an ATV bridge that washed away along Miller Flat years ago, she said.
In the Butte Ranger District officials want to improve campsites and conduct road work along Delmoe Lake. The camp spurs there are too short to accommodate larger RVs and campers, so staff want to expand some of them, Plavonic said.
It’s a phased project that calls for resurfacing of the road to the lake and contracted surveying and campground design, she said. Officials are hiring contractors to take on many of the new GAOA-funded projects because of labor shortages.
“We don’t have housing, and housing is a huge, huge factor. You can imagine a seasonal employee coming in and getting paid $16 an hour to work their tail off on a trail crew. It may be more appealing to make $25 an hour at McDonald’s,” Plavonic said. “That’s what we’re competing with, and we’re losing.”
So far, the Great American Outdoors Act has provided the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest with a lot more money than its typical funding sources provide, and Plavonic hopes more is allocated to address deferred maintenance needs beyond fiscal year 2025, she said.
“I know that the first five years was kind of the pilot phase, and if things went well and we accomplished a lot on the ground, then Congress might approve GAOA for an additional five years,” she said. “We would love to see that happen. Everybody would.”
Shawn Regan, vice president of research at the Property and Environment Research Center, said that for decades, Congress neglected the basic upkeep of public lands, often prioritizing land acquisition over routine maintenance.
Passing the Great American Outdoors Act was about creating a fund that was dedicated solely to deferred maintenance, and doing that depoliticized the issue because it decoupled it from the appropriations process, he said.
But to Regan, deferred maintenance is only one piece of the puzzle, because the neglect of routine maintenance is what creates deferred maintenance in the first place.
“While it’s great that there’s this injection of funds right now, if we don’t protect those investments with adequate funding for routine maintenance, then those projects will just become deferred in the future at some point and contribute to a growing backlog,” he said.
Becky Edwards, executive director of Mountain Mamas, helped to lead the Montana coalition that advocated for the permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Later, she advocated for the Great American Outdoors Act.
Because government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service operate on small budgets, national forests often have to vie for the dollars that fund trail work and other maintenance projects, just to have them pushed down the line, she said.
“With how fast Bozeman has grown, we’ve seen how that has directly impacted public lands around here, and we’re weathering that,” Edwards said. “Trails are getting used, there are tons of people, and we’re seeing that impact on our roadways and infrastructure.”
It’s exciting for Edwards to see Great American Outdoors Act-funded projects come to fruition because nuts-and-bolts things like road and restroom maintenance are what keep experiences on public lands enjoyable, she said.
Back at Jackson Creek Road, Bozeman District Ranger Lewellen said there’s no question that if it weren’t for the Great American Outdoors Act, repairs there would not be moving forward.
“We wouldn’t be fixing cabins. We wouldn’t be doing trail maintenance. We wouldn’t have done the pavement preservation,” he said. “All this work we’ve done of late is all because of this funding, and we’re really fortunate for it.”