GAO Report: 1/4 of USFS trails meet standards, maintenance backlog over $520 million

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) titled, “Forest Service Trails: Long- and Short-Term Improvements Could Reduce Maintenance Backlog and Enhance System Sustainability” was released recently.

According to the report, one-quarter of the Forest Service’s 158000 miles of trails met the agency’s standards, and the estimated trail maintenance backlog is $314 million, with an additional $210 million for annual maintenance, capital improvements and operations.

Add this big-ticket maintenance backlog to the growing $8.4 billion maintenance and reconstruction backlog the Forest Service current has on it’s 380,000+ miles of roads (and the fact that the Forest Service only receives 20% of the annual maintenance funding it needs to maintain its existing 380,000+ mile road system to environmental and safety standards) and one gets a sense just how far the Forest Service (and Congress) has dug the Forest Service’s backlogged maintenance hole.

Click here for a copy of the GAO report. A Missoulian article about the report is available here.

What GAO Found
The Forest Service has more miles of trail than it has been able to maintain, resulting in a persistent maintenance backlog with a range of negative effects. In fiscal year 2012, the agency reported that it accomplished at least some maintenance on about 37 percent of its 158,000 trail miles and that about one-quarter of its trail miles met the agency’s standards. The Forest Service estimated the value of its trail maintenance backlog to be $314 million in fiscal year 2012, with an additional $210 million for annual maintenance, capital improvement, and operations. Trails not maintained to quality standards have a range of negative effects, such as inhibiting trail use and harming natural resources, and deferring maintenance can add to maintenance costs.

The Forest Service relies on a combination of internal and external resources to help maintain its trail system. Internal resources include about $80 million allocated annually for trail maintenance activities plus funding for other agency programs that involve trails. External resources include volunteer labor, which the Forest Service valued at $26 million in fiscal year 2012, and funding from federal programs, states, and other sources.

Collectively, agency officials and stakeholders GAO spoke with identified a number of factors complicating the Forest Service’s trail maintenance efforts, including (1) factors associated with the origin and location of trails, (2) some agency policies and procedures, and (3) factors associated with the management of volunteers and other external resources. For example, many trails were created for purposes other than recreation, such as access for timber harvesting or firefighting, and some were built on steep slopes, leaving unsustainable, erosion-prone trails that require continual maintenance. In addition, certain agency policies and procedures complicate trail maintenance efforts, such as the agency’s lack of standardized training in trails field skills, which limits agency expertise. Further, while volunteers are important to the agency’s trail maintenance efforts, managing volunteers can decrease the time officials can spend performing on-the-ground maintenance.

Agency officials and stakeholders GAO interviewed collectively identified numerous options to improve Forest Service trail maintenance, including (1) assessing the sustainability of the trail system, (2) improving agency policies and procedures, and (3) improving management of volunteers and other external resources. In a 2010 document titled A Framework for Sustainable Recreation, the Forest Service noted the importance of analyzing recreation program needs and available resources and assessing potential ways to narrow the gap between them, which the agency has not yet done for its trails. Many officials and stakeholders suggested that the agency systematically assess its trail system to identify ways to reduce the gap and improve trail system sustainability. They also identified other options for improving management of volunteers. For example, while the agency’s goal in the Forest Service Manual is to use volunteers, the agency has not established collaboration with and management of volunteers who help maintain trails as clear expectations for trails staff responsible for working with volunteers, and training in this area is limited. Some agency officials and stakeholders stated that training on how to collaborate with and manage volunteers would enhance the agency’s ability to capitalize on this resource.

Why GAO Did This Study
The Forest Service manages more than 158,000 miles of recreational trails offering hikers, horseback riders, cyclists, off-highway-vehicle drivers, and others access to national forests. To remain safe and usable, these trails need regular maintenance, such as removal of downed trees or bridge repairs. GAO was asked to review the agency’s trail maintenance activities. This report examines (1) the extent to which the Forest Service is meeting trail maintenance needs, and effects associated with any maintenance not done; (2) resources, including funding and labor, that the agency employs to maintain its trails; (3) factors, if any, complicating agency efforts to maintain its trails; and (4) options, if any, that could improve the agency’s trail maintenance efforts. GAO reviewed laws and agency documents; analyzed Forest Service budget data for fiscal years 2006-2012 and trails data for fiscal years 2008-2012; and interviewed agency officials and representatives of 16 stakeholder groups selected to represent trail users, conservation, and industry. Their views are not generalizable.

What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends, among otheractions, that the Forest Service (1) analyze trails program needs and available resources and develop options for narrowing the gap between them and take steps to assess and improve the sustainability of its trails and (2) take steps to enhance training on collaborating with and managing volunteers who help maintain trails. In commenting on a draft of this report, the Forest Service generally agreed with GAO’s findings and recommendations.For more information, contact Anne-Marie Fennell at (202) 512-3841 or [email protected].

13 thoughts on “GAO Report: 1/4 of USFS trails meet standards, maintenance backlog over $520 million”

  1. I guess roads that serve only recreation needs should be maintained with Recreation dollars, now. There is a reason why road maintenance isn’t well funded. It is expected that timber projects do that work as projects get completed. I think that we all here know that, as well as the fact that we don’t do as many projects as we used to. Loggers have to sometimes rebuild these roads to be “like new”, if they impact them severely. Other roads need to be returned to full functioning but, work is generally “commensurate with use”.

    I wonder what GAO thinks about diverting trail funds to the new Let-Burn policy. With Wilderness Let-Burn fires being so popular *smirk*, these days, we can bet that trails will be further impacted by falling snags and increased erosion. But, isn’t that “natural”?!?!? *smirk*

  2. Thanks for posting, this Matthew.. my thought upon reading it was…

    there are always new National they come with new money? If not, then other parks must be less funded. Do they need to start shutting down parts of the parks?

    I’d like to see who asked for the study and their letter because it would have been interesting to compare with the BLM- are they better at managing trails? If so, why?

    Or are the studies we get a function of the narrowness of the question asked. I wonder who asked the question.. maybe there should be a step in the process, after the asker asks, where the agencies get together and say “this study could get what X wants but also be more helpful, if we looked at success across agencies and get some mutual learning”. Because the taxpayer has to fund all of them, and if there’s a better way, it might have been already found.

    • Sharon: According to the Missoulian article, “U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Jim Moran, D-Va., officially requested the study” and they were prodded by Backcountry Horsemen of America and The Wilderness Society.

      I’d also like to point out that according to Table 6 (page 52) in the GAO report titled “Forest Service Trails Allocations Distributed to the Regions, Fiscal Years 2006 to 2012” it appears that allocations in FY 2011 and FY 2012 are up from FY 2006 and in some cases, like the Rocky Mountain Region, those allocations are up significantly (FY 2006 at $4,352,000 to FY 2011 at $8,599,000 and FY 2012 at $7,308).

      I’m also not sure that we’re adding that many new National Parks year in and year out.

      Also, Larry, could you provide evidence that would support your claim that trail maintenance funds are being diverted to the new Let-Burn policy? Can you also explain how this supposed “Let-Burn” policy actually costs US taxpayers more money than the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies pulling out all the stops to put out every single wildfire with ground, air attack, retardant and 500 person fire camps?

  3. STRAWMAN ALERT! “Can you also explain how this supposed “Let-Burn” policy actually costs US taxpayers more money than the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies pulling out all the stops to put out every single wildfire with ground, air attack, retardant and 500 person fire camps?”

    I didn’t say that funds were currently being diverted, did I??!? I simply wondered about what they would think. And, of course, I never said that ALL fires should be extinguished. Never have I said that even single solitary snag burning in a Wilderness Area must be attacked. Fires happen all the time in Yosemite, and are safely left to burn. However, their track record in making bad decisions is not that good. It is when they make bad decisions that I get concerned. The West Fork Complex is a perfect example of a STUPID decision. Every variable said that this fire must be contained. They had a nine day window of safety to do what they needed to do, and they failed miserably, currently spending more than 2 million per day.

    • Larry, Getting really sick and tired of your tremendous ability to duck and weave and not own-up and take responsibility for many of your claims of supposed facts. Here’s exactly what you said:

      “I wonder what GAO thinks about diverting trail funds to the new Let-Burn policy.”

      Therefore, my question to you is: “Could you provide evidence that would support your claim that trail maintenance funds are being diverted to the new Let-Burn policy?”

      Thanks pal.

      • The reality here is that I was anticipating funds being diverted. I’m quite sure they have often been diverted in the past decade, as all departments lost money during big fire seasons. I never said they currently were being diverted, as it is clear that it is early in fire season. I notice the GAO didn’t say anything about the historical fact that “fire borrowing” happened a lot, and is likely to happen again.

        The keyword would be “wonder”, and indicates a rhetorical situation. If I meant something else, as you are accusing, would I use “wonder”? Yes, I am being a little coy but, it’s quite amusing. By now, you should know I choose my words pretty carefully.

        Also, you are one who copies and pastes stuff that supports your point of view, then doesn’t want to defend it, claiming it is the author’s opinion.

  4. As a member of Back Country Horsemen’s public lands effort in Washington State, I was aware of the GAO request. I cant speak for those in BCHA or TWS that made the request, but my own sense is that there wasn’t a pre-determined outcome expectation other than to document the backlog of trail maintenance. This is an update from an earlier GAO study.

    Speaking for myself (and I did work for the USFS for both fire and recreation), I am disappointed in the GAO conclusions which seem like a capitulation to downsizing trails, a process the USFS has been mentioning it wants to start for several years. I do feel that the study itself is fairly accurate.

    Three things that have happened in the last several years give me cause for concern. First, there is the first downsizing work of the USFS (though they put a “rightsizing” public relations spin on it) on facilities, campgrounds and trailheads. This is the precursor to the upcoming trails studies and was known as the Recreational Facilities Analysis (RFA). Indeed, the current GAO report refers to this process which some call successful but users call horrible. RFA resulted in targeting many semi-developed and undeveloped campgrounds/trailhead facilities for decommissioning. The criteria used for decommissioning was light to moderate use……which describes the kinds of places many of us like to go to. Some very cherished places were ripped out, and then the USFS local districts realized this wasn’t the best idea, and some targeted for decommissioning weren’t. Or haven’t been yet. At the national level, RFA was considered a great success. The GAO study though says it like it is.

    So think about this for trails. Think that in the business model of “right-sizing”, those trails with opportunities for solitude will be the first to go.

    Secondly, right-sizing for roads is happening right now, with all forests required to provide a plan for what they can maintain and what they can’t. The Mt Baker Snoqualmie NF in Washington State has funding to maintain 25% of the road system. So what happens to the other 75%?

    Thirdly, the USFS redid their trails classification system (INFRA) to set design standards and maintenance objectives which they are supposed to meet. What if they can’t? Are they now liable for unsafe trails that fall below their rated standards (which is at least in part, most of them)?

    We can bat around what funding pays for what. When I worked as a firefighter for the USFS, I also worked on trails when there weren’t fires. Our road crew worked on improving roads to trailheads when they weren’t involved in timber sales. We had robust numbers of youth crews and youth camps. The USFS in many rural towns was a healthy share of the community economy, tied directly to the resource use functions. All of that is gone now. Towns which were thriving are still half boarded up, even thirty years after the spotted owl wars, plenty of time for retooling for the nature watcher visitor that was supposed to fill the gap. This won’t happen of course. That won’t stop those that claim it does.

    I know many field workers and local staff in the USFS, and they are hard working folks who care deeply about what they do. They just need the resources to do their jobs…not more layers of regulations. It seems sometime that Washington DC has abandoned them. The GAO study points out that up to 30% of recreational funding is spent at the national level. For that 30%, the local staff deserve a heck of a lot more support and inspiration. Not just a fire-sale of their infrastructure.

  5. The bean counters in DC insist on having timber sales maintain roads. They feel that timber sale issues are out of their hands, and not their fault that projects fail. Roads continue to be a casualty of the timber wars. Similarly, campgrounds and trails no longer get “donations” from other departments. The “not with MY management code” mindset is firmly in place, and not going anywhere. Recreation costs must be itemized and isolated so that people can see the real costs of the program. It is pretty harsh to lose parts of the system of plentiful recreation opportunities. Additionally, when campgrounds burn, they usually don’t get rebuilt. I do think that Congress is the key, as they hold the purse strings. They CAN add more funding, and they CAN re-issue the FLAME Act but, we all know that the current Congress is more about partisanship and politics.

    Just when you thought the chaos couldn’t get more tangled, we find new ways to sabotage the rudder on this ship.

  6. Except in high traffic areas, let trail maintenance be done by volunteers with coordination and supervision by the feds. If you want a nice, quiet, low use trail, you volunteer to maintain it or live with the equivalent of a true wilderness trail maintained only by traffic. The Fed’s printing press is already overworked.

    Roads could also be a casualty of an indirect response to the cry for more road-less areas.


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