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When the soles of Steve Garvert’s hiking boots separated from the uppers during a trek to climb the highest mountain in Montana, he couldn’t blame poorly maintained Forest Service trails along the route.

“This trail seemed maintained just fine,” said Brad Hickock, Garvert’s hiking partner, as he busily bound the sole of Garvert’s soles to his boots with parachute cord.

The Belgrade hikers also said the forest trails surrounding their hometown were well maintained, partly through the assistance of active groups of volunteers.

Funding decline

Yet, funding for forest trail maintenance nationally, regionally and locally has been on a steady decline despite increased forest use. A recent General Accounting Office report found that the Forest Service estimated its trail maintenance backlog at $314 million in 2012, with an additional $210 million for annual maintenance, capital improvement and operations.

“The GAO report is reflective of local conditions,” said Kimberly Schlenker, the Gallatin National Forest’s wilderness and recreation program manager based in Bozeman. “It has been a challenge for many years. We rely more on our partners and soft money.”

The trail system in the Northern Region alone, which includes forests in all of Montana and parts of northern Idaho and North Dakota, totals more than 23,000 miles, a number that includes motorized and nonmotorized routes. The budget to maintain those trails was $9 million this year, down 17 percent from the previous year, which was down 7 percent from the year before that, according to Phil Sammon, Northern Region spokesman.

On the Beartooth

The trails Garvert and Hickock used to approach 12,807-foot Granite Peak are on the Beartooth District of the Custer National Forest.

“We’ve been really fortunate until recent times to get pretty good funding for our trail system and forest,” said Jeff Gildehaus, Beartooth District outdoor recreation planner in Red Lodge.

The district has 185 miles of wilderness trails, 120 miles of nonmotorized forest trails, 65 miles of single track and ATV trails and 65 miles of designated motorized routes, mostly in the Pryor Mountains.

To maintain its trails, the Beartooth District has a trail crew of five seasonal employees, down from about eight. The number of days the crew is on the ground has also been cut from 100 days to 85. For this year, the district received $122,000 to maintain its trails with cuts likely next year.

“For the most part, we’ve got a good trail system,” Gildehaus said. “That’s partly because we’re smaller so the money goes farther.”

That may change as the Custer National Forest completes its consolidation with the Gallatin National Forest in October of 2014.

“It remains to be seen what kind of crew we’ll be able to hit the ground with next year,” Gildehaus said.

Heavy use

The Gallatin is considered the most heavily used forest in the Northern Region, yet it has five vacancies on its recreation staff to save money and only received $363,000 for trail maintenance.

The Gallatin includes ranger districts in Bozeman, Gardiner and a combined office in Livingston and Big Timber called the Yellowstone District. The Gardiner District has 313 miles of wilderness trail, the Yellowstone District has 287 miles and Bozeman 125. The Bozeman District also has an additional 431 miles of nonmotorized trails outside the wilderness.

Gildehaus questioned how soon the loss of trail crew personnel and the maintenance that they perform will be apparent to the public, probably very little at first. But over time he said the decline will be compounded and more noticeable.

“The public will start to see it in a few years,” Gildehaus said. “We won’t be able to log out every trail in a few years, like we do now.”

Volunteers needed

One way the Forest Service has been able to maintain trails with fewer seasonal employees is through the use of volunteers. The GAO found that volunteer labor and other “external” sources of funding from states and federal programs were valued at $26 million in 2012. But the agency said the Forest Service needed to improve its management of those volunteers by training its staff to work with those groups.

The GAO’s report comes as other surveys have shown that accessible public lands like those managed by the Forest Service are a big draw to people moving into states like Montana.

“With population growth we do see more use in the front country of the forest,” Schlenker said. “They are getting loved by lots of folks. Fortunately, in an area like Bozeman, we have a lot of committed volunteer support.”

The upside in the declining federal commitment to forest trail maintenance is that the Forest Service has had to become more creative in finding and working with partners, Schlenker said. The downside is that the agency doesn’t have enough people to do the work well.

“It won’t be do more with less, it will be do less with less,” Gildehaus said of future cuts to the trail maintenance program.

Backpackers like Garvert may eventually notice the change. For now, though, he managed to hike the rest of the way out from Granite Peak on the rocky Mystic Lake trail with his modified hiking boots, but it wasn’t easy on the rocky downhill route, despite the trail being well maintained.

His take-home lesson from the trip was simple: “It’s important to bring two pairs of shoes,” he said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.