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Report by Government Accountability Office studies how the Forest Service is meeting trail maintenance needs, and options that could improve the agency’s trail maintenance efforts.

arrow Download the complete 62-page study (pdf 1.9 mb)


Forest Service trail needs reported to Congress in GAO study


The U. S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a study in June of how the U. S. Forest Service is meeting trail maintenance needs. The new report identifies several challenges, including many miles of trails that “were built on steep slopes, leaving unsustainable, erosion-prone trails that require continual maintenance.”

The effective use of volunteers is highlighted as one of the solutions. However, the report notes “the agency’s lack of standardized training in trails field skills, which limits agency expertise.” In addition, “managing volunteers can decrease the time officials can spend performing on-the-ground maintenance.”

Key GAO recommendations for the Forest Service are to:
“(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.”

The report is titled Long- and Short-Term Improvements Could Reduce Maintenance Backlog and Enhance System Sustainability. The Wilderness Society and Back Country Horsemen of America originally requested the study from members of Congress.

“Trails contribute over $80 billion each year to the outdoor recreation industry but they receive a paltry investment in return,” said Paul Spitler of The Wilderness Society. “In this era of budget-constraints, additional funding for trail maintenance may be difficult to acquire but it’s incredibly important. At the same time we need to investigate other creative solutions to help supplement limited funds and stretch every dollar further,” he said.

“We’ve seen first-hand how partnerships with the Forest Service bring people together and leverage resources more effectively,” said Jim McGarvey, chairman of the Back Country Horsemen.“ Congress and the Forest Service should encourage the use of creative partnerships whenever possible to get more out of every dollar, empower our volunteer networks, and ensure existing resources are used more efficiently.”


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The new planning rule will address current and future
needs of the National Forest System

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.


arrowDownload the complete 62-page study (pdf 1.9 mb)

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