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August 01, 2005

Unhappy Trails

Resize_of_rotation_of_gothic_basin_111 For many northwesterners, summer means an all-too-brief window to capitalize on the region's natural heritage. For a few months city-dwellers like myself become schizophrenics--living in an apartment during the week and waking up in a sleeping bag on the weekends. Northwesterners have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to trails and wilderness within a short drive of our cities. In the wild country of the Northwest's mountains, it is still possible to find solitude on high country trails, in alpine lake basins that look like Shangri La, and in ancient dark forests.

But our ability to experience those places is facing a very real threat because many of the best trails to those refuges are going extinct. In some cases, the loss of trails is an especially bitter pill to swallow because there is comparatively ample funding for the roads that lead to those vanishing trails.

In the US Northwest, the vast majority of our precious natural beauty is not managed by northwesterners, but by two federal agencies, the US Forest Service, which operates national forests, and the National Park Service. Both agencies are badly under-funded and short-handed.

In fact,the Forest Service is already beginning to sell off assets. Many national forests lack the resources necessary even to maintain their crumbling infrastructures of campgrounds, forest roads, boat launches, and trails. National forests are increasingly dependent on volunteers and private funding to make up for the severe shortfall of federal dollars.

Here's a case study that hits very close to home for an estimated 5 million northwesterners: the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest--the huge swath of federal land that blankets the west side of the Cascade Mountains from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier National Park. Right now, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie's website says:

While it appears that repairs to roads are largely funded and most will eventually be made, the same can not yet be said for the trail system.

Here's why.

In October 2003, an autumn deluge of unheard of proportions swept away large chunks of well-known routes like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Stehekin Valley trails, and many others. In fact, the flood did about $4.5 million in damage just to trails in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, not counting additional havoc in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. (For more on this, read my article that appeared in the Seattle Weekly in May 2004 linking the trail damage to climate change.) 

Even now, in 2005, the National Forest has only about one-tenth of the necessary funding to make the repairs. Groups like Washington Trails Association and The Mountaineers have made heroic efforts to help the National Forest win funding and have volunteered countless hours to help repair the damage. But the fundamental problem is too great to be overcome by volunteers: the forest simply needs more money for trails and the federal government isn't about to supply anywhere near the money required.

But there is plenty of money available for repairing the many forest roads that were damaged by the October floods. (The floods did a number on the roads too, most notoriously the popular Mountain Loop Highway that no longer makes a loop because of washouts near Barlow Pass. Still, road repair is pretty much a sure thing.) The Federal Highway Administration operates a program called the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO, for short) and the National Forest was able to qualify for ERFO funding to repair most of the flood damage.

The problem, of course, is that hikers and other recreationists may be left with roads that lead to trailheads, but no actual trails. This is not just a bizarre hypothetical. The White Chuck River Road is slated for repairs soon, but to my knowledge there are not enough resources to repair the White Chuck Trail that leads to Kennedy Hot Springs, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the shortest route of the several long routes up Glacier Peak, a popular mountaineering destination.

Don't blame local Forest Service officials--they're making the best of incredibly scarce resources. Instead, you can blame federal funding scarcity--and restrictions on existing funding--that hamstrings forests like the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie.

Without trails, recreation in national forests becomes based on either internal combustion or on the strength, skill, and time to navigate large stretches of difficult trail-less country. The latter is a more authentic wilderness experience, I suppose, but certainly not something the whole family can enjoy.

One possible solution is to convert some of the roads, or portions of them, to trails. Olympic National Forest has experimented with this solution with the damaged Dossewallips River Road that once led to trails to Lake Constance and Mount Constance, near Hood Canal. It's controversial to say the least. One the up side: the forest gains a few additional miles of trail and the area's natural resources are arguably better preserved. On the downside: some of the best  destinations in the forest are put out of reach of day hikers and families. (The same thing effectively happened years ago on the gated road to Monte Cristo that is now mainly the province of mountain bikes and hiking boots.)

Settling on the right mix of access roads, good trails, and deep (trail-less) wilderness is not easy. In any mix, however, it's galling to find that there is ample funding for cars, but very little for feet.

There ought to be a large natural constituency for the trails of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie. The forest is located within a 70-mile drive of over 3.6 million Washingtonians (and also nearby to 1.5 million British Columbians). No surprise, it's one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country and in recent years it has also become one of the most devoted to trail-based recreation.

It's something of a truism to urge people to contact their representatives in Congress, but that really is one of the best things you can do for trails in the Northwest. Congress controls the purse strings and has the power to fund trail restoration and maintenance. And then when you've done that, hook up with Washington Trails Association or the Mountaineers--they are vocal advocates for muscle-powered recreation on federal land and. They also put their muscles where their mouths are, donating thousands of hours of work to help repair trails.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie is a national gem. Just a short drive from downtown skyscrapers you can find your way into more than 1.3 million acres of designated wilderness and even today find plenty of places to be alone with jaw-dropping scenery. If we can't find money to protect our nearest and dearest natural places, is there any hope for the far-flung and less-visited wild places that make the Northwest special?

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink


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» Unhappy Trails from Earth Share of Washington News
By Eric de Place of Northwest Environment Watch, originally published in the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog. For many northwesterners, summer means an all-too-brief window to capitalize on the region’s natural heritage. For a few months city-dwellers ... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 2, 2005 8:41:45 AM


In addition to writing your representatives, you can also raise money for hiking trails in August just by registering on the Washington Trails Association website and logging your miles on the trails this month.

Learn more about their Hike-A-Thon online at:

Posted by: Dave | Aug 1, 2005 11:48:27 AM

I had no idea that so many trails had been damaged! I'll definitely be contacting our representatives to let them know that these trails need to be fixed and that the parks need more money to do it.

Posted by: Kate | Aug 1, 2005 1:25:50 PM

When I worked for the Forest Service, it seemed that most trails were over-designed. There was a $60,000 bridge over a small creek, where a few strategically placed boulders would have done the job. The width specifications, three feet plus, encouraged the use of small tractors instead of employing unskilled youths with McClouds and pulaskis. In the Sierra Nevada, I have seen unmaintained trails that are still perfectly usable. You just have to go around a log now and then. In addition to getting more trail funds, I hope there are some common-sense measures taken to get more for our money. In addition, a narrow trail is usually less likely to wash out than a wide trail, and will do less damage if it does wash out.

Posted by: sf | Aug 3, 2005 10:37:07 AM

Good point, SF. I'll bet you a nickel it has something to do with my least-favorite trail companions: horses.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Aug 3, 2005 12:15:12 PM

Well said, sf. And Eric's supposition is correct, as trail funding after the MUSYA required accomodation for horsies. I prefer hiking in CA, as the trail maintenance is spotty & keeps the stock away - Yolla Bolly is good for that. The Cascades are waaaay to accomodating to stock, IMO, and the trail crews could do well to let a few logs lie there.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Aug 4, 2005 10:50:35 AM

Great post, Eric. A few comments before I head up to the hills myself:

I’m in near total agreement, personally, but sometimes feel some dissonance here and there. While there are probably volumes written on this subject (and more that need writing), there are many things rolling around in the tundra here: resource protection, maximization of enjoyment, priorities and equitability, and protection of certain kinds of “natural” experiences. My reductionist exercise:

On roads vs. trails, prioritization of resources is always a good hot button—“we should focus on trails, not roads!” (which I agree with)… but the arguments of why it’s unbalanced distract us from thinking about what balance is ideal. To what extent should we focus on trails more than roads? Perhaps we build/repair those trails that were damaged—but should we stop there? Was the appropriate balance pre-2003 floods? Conversely, might we have enough trails already in the backcountry? The point is, I’m unclear what principles guide us toward the maximum or minimum trail density, distance, and access (with the exception of user surveys and management plans, I guess). With roads, my value lens makes this easy: we have way too many! But for trails…?

I guess it depends on what our priority goal is. If it’s to give the maximum quantity of people some exposure to nature, we need both more trails and more roads. Equitability would also have us keep horses, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, and the occasional helicopter in the mix as well. Given this priority, we’d also likely have to put handrails, toilets, and other amenities in greater numbers on trails. After all, as silly as it seems, it gets us to our goal of bringing the maximum amount of people into the backcountry.

If maximum quantity exposure isn’t our priority goal, perhaps it’s to give the maximum quality exposure to certain kinds of experiences. If we elevate the experience of wildness to the top, we should probably let all things go. As Eric points out, this “is a more authentic wilderness experience, I suppose, but certainly not something the whole family can enjoy.” So families lose out—at least on weighing in on creating/repairing trails. (Other losers would be horses, snowmobilers, etc.) And, while it’s a good argument for access that people will only protect or act to protect those things they love, I think there is a tradeoff relationship between quality and quantity.

What if our priority goal is to protect the resource? If that was the case, perhaps some roads should be left to grow into trails (good idea!) and some of the trails should be left to grow back (devil’s club notwithstanding). But I’m unsure even how best to achieve this goal. What does the absence or presence of trails do most (certainly different in different situations): Does their absence reduce use, redirect use to current trails, or lead to increased damage to resources (because the same travel done overland without a trail a few times is arguably harder on certain ecosystems than a trail)? And, of course, does their presence increase overall use of the trail system, lead to increased damage to resources by overuse or absorb use that would otherwise be off-trail? I suppose it’s a spatial scale question. My hunch, though, is that this is in the quality column.

I suppose all of this has been figured out—some recreation area, some park, some wilderness, etc. But, just like with our road vs. trail balance, it’s not clear that we’re at the appropriate balance between these use designations. And, okay, okay—we’re not deciding on just one goal: there are clearly several that all need to be weighed and integrated. Reductionism be damned.

Final thoughts, though, and a plug from a regular user of trails-- and the real reason why I replied to this post: let’s not equate our protection of “our nearest and dearest natural places” with more trail access—while it is possible that a lack of trails in some areas increases off-trail impacts, I would imagine that it would do more to restrict human access (and protect resources) more than anything. These “the far-flung and less-visited wild places” “make the Northwest special,” in my opinion, because few humans are willing to get there. And this isn’t of value just to people like me who love a good week-long bushwhack and high route—the fact that these relatively inaccessible lands exist just might be an inspiration to many who will never travel there.

Posted by: John M. | Aug 5, 2005 3:29:03 PM


Thanks for your very insightful comments here. You're right on the money, I think. There's a fairly dense web of questions related to balancing access and the quantity/quality of experiences with resource protection and other goods. I won't even attempt to sort out all of that now, partly because I haven't yet personally settled on what I think is the right balance.

I, too, prefer trail-less backcountry, route-finding, and a little adventure, but I doubt would have cultivated that deep enjoyment had I never been exposed to the more pedestrian forms of outdoor recreation (if you'll pardon the pun). I guess one response is to borrow Justice Douglas' call in "Wilderness Bill of Rights" not only to conserve existing wild places but also to add to them aggressively. Still, that begs a number of questions about what our protected places should be like and how accessible they should be.

I'm somewhat convinced by the argument that Spring and Manning put forth: that experiences on trails creates a constituency for wilderness and conservation. And the political benefit of that constituency probably outweights the harm done by all those pairs of hiking boots heading up into alpine meadows. (You could take this argument too far, I suppose, but I think it works in real life.)

Before I ramble on too long, I want to briefly respond to one thing you wrote: "...let’s not equate our protection of “our nearest and dearest natural places” with more trail access..."

Fair enough. What I wrote there was something of an equivocation (though I hope you'll pardon a little purple prose in the conclusion). What I should have said was: "If we can't find the resources to protect access to our nearest and dearest natural places, is there any hope for protecting our access to the far-flung and less-visited wild places that make the Northwest special?"

But, as you point out, the next question is: "Should we?"

Posted by: Eric de Place | Aug 8, 2005 2:00:54 PM

Americans With Disabilities Act is also sometimes involved in trail specs. I know of a couple of spots where they have really gone overboard with accessibility and the trails are blacktopped. As long as it is only a few places, I don't mind, but it does take away from the natural experience for those who aren't handicapped.

Posted by: sf | Aug 8, 2005 11:48:49 PM