Groups rally behind National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act

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Outdoor recreation and conservation groups, including the Backcountry Horsemen of America, The Wilderness Society, the American Horse Council, motorized recreation groups, outfitters and guides expressed their support for congressional legislation that would improve access and public safety on national forests and better address the persistent, growing backlog for trail maintenance on public lands.

The National Forest Trails System Stewardship Act of 2015, introduced on Feb. 10 by Representatives Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Tim Walz (D-MN), would keep more trails open and accessible by expanding the use of volunteer and partner organizations and providing increased focus on a handful of priority areas around the country.

More than 50 diverse recreation and conservation groups requested the legislation after a 2013 Government Accountability Office study found the Forest Service trail system is being squeezed between the demands of growing public use and shrinking budgets. According to that report, the maintenance backlog for forest trails exceeds $314 million and threatens to limit public access, harm natural resources and increase future maintenance costs.

“Improving safety and access in our national forests provides a significant return on investment for America,” said Paul Spitler, Director of Wilderness Campaigns at The Wilderness Society. “These trails fuel a powerful outdoor economy and keep our public lands accessible for Americans. They are simply too important to lose. We applaud Representatives Lummis and Walz for their leadership on preserving and maintaining America’s trails.”

The United States National Forest System contains the largest network of trails in the world and receives roughly 165 million visitors a year. While more people than ever are heading into national forests in pursuit of exercise, relaxation and adventure, only one quarter of all trails are maintained to standard. The trails backlog prevents public access, poses dangers to public safety and degrades clean water.

The Back Country Horsemen of America said the effort to create a more robust and coordinated trails-focused volunteer program is essential to preserving American’s access to the great outdoors

“Congress recognizes that our national forest trail system is deteriorating,” said Jim McGarvey, Chairman of Back Country Horsemen of America. “This bill emphasizes greater collaboration with volunteers and partner organizations and seeks to leverage additional resources to augment the important role played by Forest Service trail crews.”

“The recreational horse industry contributes $32 billion a year to the economy and supports nearly 435,000 jobs nationwide,” said American Horse Council Vice President of Government Relations Ben Pendergrass. “However, it is dependent on access to public lands and well maintained trails. The current Forest Service trail maintenance backlog is a serious threat to its continued growth and health. This bill will help address the problem and ensure equestrians and all trail users continue to have access to, and are able to enjoy, trails on our national forests.”

In addition to expanding the use of volunteers the legislation also requires the Secretary of Agriculture to identify nine to 15 priority areas throughout the country for increased trail maintenance.

Hiking groups also hailed the legislation. “We appreciate what the bill sets out to accomplish,” said Peter Olsen, Vice President at American Hiking Society. “The bill would significantly increase the role of partners and volunteers in maintaining trails throughout the national forests. During times of limited agency budgets, the role of volunteers is critical to ensuring Americans can continue to explore the great outdoors.”