Have you seen the disappearing trails?

Two years ago, my co-workers and I descended a grassy slope far above the Snake River. Though a thin ribbon of trail showed on the map and on our GPS, the actual tread had vanished completely. Only by dead reckoning were we able to find the short stretches of trail that still remained, dropping over 3,000 feet in two miles to the river.

In other places, avalanches wipe the  land clean or pile up huge windthrows. Boulders fall. Trees, their roots loosened by insects or wind, topple. Another trail silently disappears.

When I worked as head of a big Forest recreation program, trail users called up and screamed in indignation. The trails were not safe, we weren’t clearing them quickly, what the F were we doing with all our time and money? Useless to explain the truth: there is no longer any money.

Yesterday I went into my old office. The hard working trail crew foreman just sighed. The budget he got this year was $43,000. For his salary, the cost of his vehicle and horse trailer, the horse herd, and supposedly to clear 1100 miles of trail. “I’ll be clearing trails by myself this year,” he said. “But how can you do that?” I asked, flashing back to my own trail crew days, burdened with crosscut saw, pulaski, shovel.

“I’ve done it before,” he said.

This is happening all over the country in our national forests–the less respected and less known cousins to their flashy counterparts, the National Parks, who have an outstanding lobby and years of propaganda (I say this in a good way) behind them.  You’ve probably climbed over a few down logs or seen erosion take out a trail in your travels. In the past, armies of seasonal summer workers could keep up with the damage. Now they can’t.

I feel like a lot of energy  is spent complaining about who can use what trail and why. If instead people banded together with that energy to swing tools, donate money or lobby Congress it might be time better spent. Maybe you don’t ride horses and don’t care that a trail is not safe anymore for them. Ditto bikes. But as each of our favorite trails disappear, that should be a warning to all of us. Yes, our tax dollars should pay for this. But they don’t.

Get out there. Run, ski, bike, ride horses, whatever you like to do. But we can no longer do these things secure in the luxury that someone else is doing the hard work for us. It’s just not going to happen.