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Parks and Rec Looks for a Way to Fund Idaho's Trails Before They're Gone

A public brainstorming session brought forth some ideas

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Only a handful of people have hiked the entirety of the Idaho Centennial Trail, which runs from the Idaho-Nevada border to Priest Lake, near the United States-Canada border. As if hiking 900 miles through Idaho's rugged backcountry isn't enough, thru-hikers deal with hundreds of miles of trails that haven't been maintained for more than a decade.

In the summer of 2015, a group of Boise hikers experienced the trail border-to-border. Backpacking through a remote portion of the Sawtooth Mountains, they came upon a square-acre-sized avalanche field one afternoon. The snow had long since melted, leaving behind hundreds of fallen trees, brush and boulders—the trail completely invisible underneath.

The hikers picked through the debris, taking care not to twist ankles or snag backpacks. Scratches and bruises were inevitable.

Leo Hennessy, the non-motorized trails program manager for Idaho Parks and Recreation, is worried about trails like the ICT.

"Once those trails have logs on them, the logs stay until a crew comes through and clears them," Hennessy said. "If the trail crew misses a year, you physically cannot walk on those trails anymore. Then the grass grows over it and after five years, the U.S. Forest Service takes it off the map. We lose them forever."

Hennessy has been the non-motorized trail coordinator for nearly 30 years. Every year, he is losing more trails in the backcountry because of the lack of funds for trail maintenance.

"For wilderness trails, this is the worst it's ever been," he said.

In an effort to generate ideas to fund maintenance and save the networks of trails, Hennessy facilitated the first-ever Non-Motorized Trail Recreation in Idaho Summit Feb. 12 at the Andrus Center.

John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University, moderated the conversation between the Idaho Outfitters and Guide Association, Idaho Parks and Recreation and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as with more than 100 trail users and stakeholders from around the state.

"We were expecting around 30 people," Freemuth said to the large crowd.

The experts described how bad conditions have become for Idaho's backcountry trails.

David Claycomb, recreation programs bureau chief, said trail maintenance costs between $100 and $200 per trail mile. Idaho has 19,000 miles of trails.

Meanwhile, Andy Brunelle, Idaho coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service, said his agency is only allotted $81.9 million nationwide for trail work, but they need $523.7 million for operations, capital improvements, annual maintenance and the ever-growing expense of deferred maintenance.

Making matters worse, wildfire suppression costs continue to eat away at maintenance funds. Brunelle said he's expecting a 10 percent cut per year for the next three years for Region 1, which affects the northern half of Idaho.

"We are not in a good position right now," Hennessy said.

The evening turned into a brainstorming session in which audience members took turns with the microphone.

Ideas included an "Adopt a Trail" program, trail work from prison crews and those in the juvenile justice system, a rise in the gas tax, a parking permit for trailheads and more.

"We could try to get AmeriCorps volunteers out there," said Betsy Hammar, a member of the 3,700-strong Boise Trail Heads Meetup group. "That would bring youth to our state and give them a real Western, mountain experience."

Jeff Halligan is the executive director of the Idaho Trails Association, which uses volunteers to tackle 45 miles of trail per year. He spoke up about the challenges that brings.

"It takes money to get volunteers," he said. "They can't do it on their own. We get them to the location and feed them and teach them how to use cross-cut saws, but land managers need to use professional trail maintenance teams, as well. It's more than just cutting trees out of there."

Another trail user recommended allowing chainsaws in wilderness-designated areas to make trail work more efficient. That comment received applause from half the attendees, while the other half shook their heads against the idea.

One user group that has figured out how to raise money and organize trail maintenance in Idaho is the off-highway motorized trail users. Each person with an ATV or dirt bike pays $12 to Idaho Parks and Rec for a sticker to be affixed to the vehicle. That money goes toward construction and maintenance of motorized trails.

The problem with a similar sticker program for non-motorized trail users, Hennessy said, is that people don't want to pay for it.

"People will say, 'I want my God-given right to go onto Forest Service land for free,' but they'll get to the Idaho Centennial Trail and they'll see that it's not there," he said.

The summit ended after two hours with a long list of ideas. Hennessy's colleagues will try to host more conversations, but he said it's up to the public to spearhead finding a funding source.

Hennessy said he hopes to buy a little more time to keep these trails accessible.

"Even if we can keep up minimal maintenance, just enough to keep them open for a couple more years," Hennessy said. "Then it still stays on the Forest Service inventory. Once we lose more trails, we'll get even less money to maintain what exists now."