It's walkers vs. riders in battle over trail upkeep

By Chris Solomon
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Diana Henion, left, and Albert Balmonte, members of EarthCorps, a conservation work group, carry 60-pound planks up a muddy path toward a trail they are helping to build near the Middle Fork Road in the North Bend area.
As spring rolls into summer and snow disappears from the high country, outdoors lovers will soon swarm over Washington's trails.

There they will find Kodak-ready marmots, meadows blushing with Indian paintbrush and, not infrequently, cob-rough paths better suited to a mountain goat than a backpacker, the ankle-turning evidence of a trails system in need of millions of dollars in upkeep.

Some advocates have long complained that the single largest source of grants for trail-related projects in the state gives 80 percent of its money to those that benefit drivers of off-road vehicles such as trail motorcycles.

For those who prefer to savor the backwoods from behind the wheel of a bucking Jeep CJ-4, the money is essential to keeping their trails intact and educating drivers about how to tread lightly.

Some other groups, however, say the vast majority of people playing in the backcountry are equestrians, hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and other nonmotorized users. These users, they argue, rightfully deserve the lion's share of money in order to rebuild fraying footbridges, reconstruct slumping trails and deal with other projects.

The issue has heated up again in an era when state agencies that perform trail maintenance are financially strapped, state parks are closing for lack of funding, and Congress is considering installing permanent pay-to-play fees in order to fund the upkeep of trails on federal lands.

The debate also underscores the increasing challenge throughout the West of accommodating many different users on a landscape that no longer seems so inexhaustible and resilient.

"We have a growing number of people recreating on a diminishing amount of land," said Jim Fox, special assistant to the director for the state's Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation. "How do you balance different recreational interests against environmental interests?"

Most drivers don't realize that when they buy a gallon of gas in Washington, a sliver of the 23 cents paid in state gas tax funds trails and trail-related uses. The state considers the gas tax a user fee for state highways.

But since gas also is burned by those driving on roads other than highways people taking a U.S. Forest Service road to a trailhead, for example, or sightseeing on the twisty byways within Mount Rainier National Park the state has tried since 1971 to return that money in the form of recreation projects that might serve those drivers.

Many states, including Oregon and California, also spend gas-tax money on outdoor recreation.

Washington's program, known as the Non-highway and Off-road Vehicle Activities Program, or Nova, had $5.5 million to distribute in the last two-year budget. A fraction of that money also comes from permits for off-road vehicles (ORVs).

Federal and state agencies including the Washington Department of Natural Resources and Washington State Parks have their own budgets to maintain trails of various kinds. The Nova program was intended to augment that.

"I think without exception, none of their budgets are adequate," Fox said. "There's more need for maintenance than there is funding. That's one reason we give out grants."

Members of EarthCorps haul a beam up a trail near Middle Fork Road.
Originally designed to benefit people who drive to the backcountry and then use off-road vehicles, the program was broadened in 1986 so that nonmotorized projects also could receive money.

"Basically, a goodly portion of the entire Squak Mountain trail system (near Issaquah) was built with Nova funds," said Jonathan Guzzo, advocacy director of the Washington Trails Association.

But the Legislature capped the percentage of money that nonmotorized uses could receive at 20 percent, while 80 percent goes toward off-road-vehicle (ORV) education, law enforcement, capital projects and upkeep.

About $43 million of $50 million distributed to city, state, tribal and federal projects statewide has gone to ORV uses since 1978, the earliest date for which tallies are available. Those sums are estimates, since some projects could benefit more than one group.

This year, off-road-related projects were granted $1.9 million, including $154,000 to help pay for two 10-month deputies and two seasonal forest employees in Chelan County to teach rider safety and patrol forest trails.

About $381,000 was approved for Spokane County's Airway Heights ORV Sports Park to help pay for a new bathroom, drinking fountains and $111,000 for noise-blocking trees and shrubs. The park hosts more than 100 scheduled events each year.

"I would say it is critical due to the fact that it's our only source of funding" above and beyond state budgets, said Arlene Brooks, Washington's executive director of the Pacific Northwest Four-wheel Drive Association, of the grants. The association has about 2,500 members statewide.

"If it hadn't been for the motorized community, we wouldn't have a Nova program to begin with," added Brooks, who sits on an advisory committee that ranks grant applications.

Such grants frustrate people like Ken Konigsmark, a hiking advocate and director of special projects for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

Diana Henion hauls a plank to a trail she and other members of EarthCorps are working on.
"When you look at the crying need for other maintenance and care of public facilities such as trails and trailheads, why are we spending $380,000 on landscaping and shrubs at an ORV park?" Konigsmark said.

"That's almost what the total allocated for all nonmotorized projects statewide is," he said, referring to the $426,000 approved this year for six nonmotorized projects.

"There's a higher public benefit that could be achieved with those funds," said Konigsmark, who also sits on the advisory committee.

A $175,000 fuel-use study is now under way to gauge for the first time how much fuel-tax money is generated by different activities. The outcome is eagerly awaited by people such as Washington Trails Association's Guzzo.

Guzzo expects the report will show that backpackers, equestrians and mountain bikers spend much more money on gasoline during recreation than ORV users do information that could persuade the Legislature to change the funding formula.

If one state study on outdoor participation is any guide, such groups may be right.

Seventeen percent of state residents in a 2000 draft survey said they hike, and 21 percent said they ride bicycles. Nine percent reported off-road-vehicle use. But those figures may be skewed by people who ride bicycles on streets or people who count driving their sport-utility vehicle to Mount Rainier, said Jim Eychaner of the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation.

More certain is the lack of money to keep trails in good condition. The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, for example, needs $13 million to $14 million to wipe out a maintenance backlog on its 1,506-mile trail system and perhaps that much again for reconstruction projects such as relocating a trail, estimates Gary Paull, the forest's wilderness and trails coordinator. Simply brushing out a trail and cutting up logs across the trail costs about $480 a mile, he said.

Following a 1993 policy, the state program does not give money to nonmotorized maintenance projects but only to capital projects and reconstruction efforts. That policy is likely to change next month, Fox said.

Still, the state money has been helpful, said Paull. The roughly $80,000 received annually makes up 20 percent of the forest's trail-construction budget. Nova funds now are being used to construct a 2.5-mile trail near North Bend.

For some people, however, the grants program raises more than simply equity issues. Over the years, the Nova grants have been used in projects from the Olympia area's Capitol State Forest to Wenatchee National Forest to "harden" forest paths with concrete blocks.

Supporters say such work is responsible stewardship and reduces erosion, not unlike bolstering a hiking trail. Critics say the state is paying to virtually pave roads through forests affecting wildlife as well as the outdoor experience.

In 1995, a dozen environmental and trails groups filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service for a proposed project that would have used state grant money to connect motorized trails in the Dark Divide area of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Southwestern Washington.

A federal judge ordered the forest managers to assess the effects on wildlife of tying together the trails before proceeding. The project has not resumed.

In 1999, another lawsuit targeted a proposed Nova-funded motorcycle-trail project in the Wenatchee National Forest. The trail would have brought more motorcycle traffic from the Lake Wenatchee area into a roadless area just south of the Glacier Peak Wilderness that repeatedly has been nominated for wilderness designation.

A judge ruled that the Forest Service needed to consider the impacts on wildlife beyond the immediate area of the improvements. The project has not proceeded.

Miles of trails in the national forest have been surrendered to off-road drivers, said Karl Forsgaard, a Mercer Island attorney and active hiker who was the attorney in the lawsuits.

"The people who are seeking natural quiet will be driven away by those who make noise, and it's never the other way around, is it?" he said. "Once you get a hiking trail rebuilt to motorcycle standards, you're telling all the hikers to go somewhere else."

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