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Bob Walker chairs trails coalition

BOB WALKER

The Montana Trails Coalition is composed of a broad spectrum of recreation interests — hikers, mountain and road bicyclists, OHV riders, skiers, snowmobilers and equestrians. Our vision is to work collaboratively to advocate for establishing sustainable trails funding and outdoor recreation opportunities in Montana while supporting the public land management agencies responsible for keeping well-maintained trails open for public use.

We’re seeking sustainable funding for trails because trails are essential components of Montana’s $7.2 billion outdoor recreation economy and because current federal and state appropriations for trails are entirely inadequate to meet the needs of communities across the state and visitors from around the country.

Our federal and state land managers face an extensive backlog of maintenance on trails, while user-days increase annually, and the allocated dollars and resources provided to them continue to decline. The Forest Service estimates that it has a backlog of $314 million in trails maintenance needs, along with another $210 million in annual maintenance, capital improvement, and operational costs. The Bureau of Land Management reports similar backlogs. Montana State Parks reports a deferred maintenance backlog of $22 million and anticipates this to increase without adequate investment by our legislature.

The omnibus bill recently passed by Congress and signed by the president contained key provisions that will greatly aid the Forest Service and BLM to maintain trails and recreation for the next several years. We are extremely pleased to see the practice of “fire-borrowing” officially come to an end with the inclusion of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The pattern of robbing millions from non-fire related funds to foot the bill for another mega-fire season was gutting the agencies we rely on to keep our trail heads open, campgrounds clean, forests healthy, and our outdoor way of life vibrant. Similar to how we pay for hurricanes and floods, WDFA grants land managers access to disaster funding to protect our lives and property without diverting dollars away from non-firefighting programs, including trails and recreation.

Another key element of the omnibus package is the reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program. Title II funds from this program can be utilized to complete special restoration projects on federal lands proposed by resource advisory committees and further bolsters the Forest Service and BLM to complete resource protection projects that benefit our rural communities and ensure access to our public lands.

We are pleased and grateful for these important steps in the right direction for the management of our public lands, but more remains to be done. Annual appropriations to our USFS and BLM regional trails need to be markedly increased to address the backlog of deferred maintenance and meet the high demand of recreation. Trails are the infrastructure of the outdoor recreation industry and open the path to one of Montana’s leading economic drivers.

If we in the MTC can come together as diversified users and speak with a unified voice, we believe our lawmakers can do the same and not only maintain but increase access to outdoor recreation opportunities throughout the state.

Bob Walker, of Clancy, chairs Montana Trails Coalition. It board includes members of American Trails, Backcountry Horsemen of Montana, Bike Walk Montana, Friends of the Little Belts, Missoula Cross Country Skiers, Missoula Mountain Bicyclers, Montana Snowmobile Association, Montana Trails, Recreation and Parks Association, Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association, Montana Wilderness Association and Prickly Pear Land Trust.

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