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GAO report requested by Rep. Lummis outlines challenges to maintaining trails in National Forests and Wilderness Areas.

WASHINGTON - The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its report today regarding the maintenance of the Forest Service trails network in National Forests and wilderness areas.  The report (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-13-618), requested in 2012 by Rep. Lummis (R-WY), Rep. Simpson (R-ID), and Rep. Moran (D-VA), outlines the immense challenges to maintaining the 158,000 miles of trails in the Forest Service trail system and wilderness areas.

According to the GAO, the Forest Service spent a cumulative total of about $194 million dollars last year, but was able to maintain to standard only about one quarter of the total miles of trails.  The trail management program is hindered by several factors, including the failure to maximize private resources and volunteer efforts to maintain trails.

After the release of the GAO report, Rep. Lummis issued the following statement:

“The GAO’s report is both cause for concern and a call to get creative about maintaining our forest trails.  The GAO report suggests one possible solution is to “right size” the trail system.  I prefer the Forest Service right prioritize instead.  With the important exception of maintaining forest health to combat wildfires and insect kill, there is no other activity in the Forest Service’s portfolio that is more important than ensuring the public’s access to our forests and wilderness areas.

“The GAO also provides some interesting proposals for maximizing federal dollars through the better coordination and use of volunteers.  Thanks to the profligate spending of previous years, we simply are not in a position to add new spending.  However, I intend to work with the Forest Service and trail users nationwide to build on the GAO’s recommendations to stretch taxpayer dollars, improve volunteer programs, and increase outside sources of funding to keep trails open and accessible.”

Highlights of the GAO Report:

· The lack of annual maintenance has led to a persistent trail maintenance backlog, whose value in fiscal year 2012 was estimated by the Forest Service at $314 million. (pg. 11)
· In fiscal years 2006 through 2012, the agency’s annual internal trails allocation averaged $88 million. (pg. 17)
· In fiscal year 2012, 1.2 million volunteer labor hours, valued at $26 million directly supported trail maintenance activities. (pg. 22)
· In fiscal year 2013, $80.2 million was set aside for the Recreational Trails Program nationally and was apportioned to the states. (pg. 23)
· The Forest Service does not centrally track external funding received by national forests and is unable to fully quantify how much total external funding the agency has received for trails. (pg. 23)
· 20% of the Forest Service trail miles are in designated wilderness areas, which can present challenges because of the prohibition against the use of motorized equipment. (pg. 29 and 33)
· Analyses required under the National Environmental Policy Act can be expensive and time-consuming, thereby detracting from actual trail maintenance activity.
· The GAO recommends: implementing standardized trails training (pg. 38); improve data collection with electronic field data techniques (pg. 39-40); improve volunteer management and coordination (pg. 41-42); address liability issues to promote volunteerism (pg. 42).

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