OGDEN -- Utah's national forest trails seem to be in caring hands, compared to pathways in other areas said to be deteriorating because to lack of maintenance during tight budget times.
About one-third of the country's national forest trails need maintenance, and only about a quarter of them are actually being maintained to U.S. Forest Service standards, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The backlog in maintenance grew to more than $310 million in 2012, and trails continue to see increasing use. Trails needed another $210 million that year for annual maintenance, capital improvement and operations, the report said.
"Trails are the way that Americans get out to enjoy the great outdoors," said Paul Spitler, senior representative of The Wilderness Society, a national conservation organization. "This study is saying that your ability to do that could well be impacted in the future. You could lose the ability to go out and enjoy your public lands if we don't come up with a solution to address our public land system."
Several lawmakers, including Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., requested the report from the GAO, a nonpartisan government research wing.
The report explained how not maintaining quality standards can inhibit trail use, hurt natural resources and compound future maintenance costs.
"The GAO's report is both cause for concern and a call to get creative about maintaining our forest trails," Lummis said. "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."
Spitler sees several ways to fix the Forest Service's problem. The first includes more money. Despite the nation's budget situation, Congress should increase funding because of the millions of people who use the trails each year, he said.
Second, the Forest Service needs to better manage the resources it has, he said.
"We are clearly in very restrained budget times and will be for the future," he said. "The Forest Service needs to make more use of volunteers ... It needs to come up with creative solutions that don't cost more money and make use of the money available."
No Utah national forest land was studied in the GAO review, but Kathy Jo Pollock, a spokeswoman for Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, said the creative solutions Spitler speaks of are already happening.
The Forest Service, with help from Weber Pathways, is looking for individuals and organizations that would like to adopt their favorite trail.
Pollock said the Adopt-A-Trail program, as it's called, is designed for individuals and community organizations that want to make a difference through volunteering to help keep the Northern Utah trail system accessible, clean and enjoyable.
As part of the program, individuals and organizations provide basic maintenance on a trail segment for a one-year period. Basic maintenance includes trail clearing, limb and brush removal, trash collection, cleaning and repairing water bars, and trailhead cleanup.
"Volunteers are crucial to keeping our trails pristine," Pollock said.
Matt Benigni, executive director of Weber Pathways, said that despite the national trend reported by the GAO, Weber County's extensive trail network is in good shape, and a large part of that is due to volunteer work.
"Most of the feedback we've gotten from trail users is positive," Benigni said. "We've been fortunate because we have a lot of people interested in the trails in this area, and those people who have that interest and passion tend to be more willing to volunteer."
Since its founding in 1995, Weber Pathways and its partners have constructed more than 51 miles of non-motorized trails and preserved more than 300 acres of open space in Weber County.
Benigni said outdoor enthusiasm from Ogden City leaders like Mayor Mike Caldwell and funding sources like RAMP grants have also helped area trails.
Over the past three years, the city's Ogden Trails Network Advisory Committee has placed about 60 signs along the Ogden and Weber rivers, realigned trails near new water tanks above the 36th Street trailhead, repaired and widened the Birdsong and Bonneville Shoreline Trails south of 29th Street, placed permanent restroom facilities at the mouth of Ogden Canyon and the 29th Street trailhead and completed several other maintenance and repair projects.
The Casper Star Tribune contributed to this report.