More than 5 million people hit the trails in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests last year — a number that continues to grow not only as more people move to the mountains but also as outdoor recreation increases in popularity.
The use of trails is at an all-time high, but the money to maintain them is shrinking. The Catch-22 has prompted the forest service to launch a year-long public process to chart a new trail strategy for the Pisgah and Nantahala.
“Outdoor trail recreation is increasing every year across the nation but particularly on our forest. We need an organized strategy for managing our trails and the increased interest and demand,” said Alice Cohen, the trails strategy coordinator for North Carolina’s National Forests.
The forest service wants to know what trails are in good shape, which ones are in bad shape, which ones need fixing, which should be kicked to the curb — and anything else the public wants to spout off about the future of trails in the region.
“The fact they are engaging the public is a good thing,” said Marcia Bromberg, president of Carolina Mountain Club. “We like being engaged. We hope we can all come out of this and move forward on the same page in a better way.”
While several trail groups plan to accept the forest service’s invitation to help chart a future trail strategy, they can’t help but wonder exactly what has prompted this sudden interest in a comprehensive trail management plan.
“I think they got a trail situation out there they can’t handle,” surmised Brent Martin with The Wilderness Society’s Southern Appalachian field office in Sylva.
Figuring out what trails actually exist, let alone the shape they are in, is a noble attempt, Martin said.
“Recreation in our national forest is a huge economic driver for Western North Carolina,” Martin said. “It is important for the agency to understand the use our trail systems have, the interest the public has in recreation, and how we all can be proponents and stewards of these pathways.”
Jason Kimenker, director of Friends of Panthertown in Jackson County, welcomes news of that the forest service is inviting the outdoor community at-large to help develop a trail strategy plan.
“It is the first time the forest service has reached out really to get views from other folks,” Kimenker said.
Kimenker’s group logged 1,500 hours of trail work in Panthertown last year — and it’s a good thing they did, since the forest service doesn’t have the budget to do very much trail maintenance itself anymore.
The forest service has seen its trail maintenance budget diminish substantially in recent years.
One of the big hopes of the forest service is to get more hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders involved in taking care of the trails they use.
“The forest service doesn’t have the capacity to take care of the trails they have,” Martin said. “I think they are really looking for a way to engage user groups more on trail maintenance and gain a better understanding of what the issue is for trails.”
The forest service isn’t completely sure how many miles of trails exist in the Pisgah and Nantahala. Sure there’s the official trails, the ones on forest service maps. But the situation on the ground is a different story.
Some trails have been abandoned for all intents and purposes, so remote and so rarely traveled that the forest has grown up over them. Other trails may be popular and well-traveled but don’t show up in the forest service’s trail database. They’ve been created by hikers beating their own paths down to waterfalls, to rock outcrops, to campsites or as shortcuts.
“We know there are lots of user created trails that aren’t part of the official system. That’s part of the information we want to gather from our collaborators, what’s out there,” Cohen said.
These user-created trails are a source of consternation for the forest service, but there’s little that can be done about them. Panthertown Valley Recreation Area in Jackson County has numerous regularly hiked trails that don’t appear in the forest service’s inventory, and thus trail volunteers aren’t permitted to maintain them.
“There are dozens of widely used footpaths in Panthertown Valley we don’t maintain and aren’t permitted to maintain,” said Jason Kimenker, the director of Friends of Panthertown. “We have plenty of other trails to maintain that take up our time.”
The forest service currently has no good system in place to know the status of trails.
“We know there are some trails in bad shape,” Cohen said.
But as for which ones, the forest service doesn’t have a paid staff to simply troll the trails looking for trouble spots. The hiking public, on the other hand, is a wealth of information on the ground condition of trails.
“We can’t possibly get out to all the trails that our users do,” Cohen said.
The forest service has so far failed to tap the public to share its’ knowledge in a consistent and meaningful way. The public can call the local forest service office if they take the wherewithal to find the phone number.
But in the absence of the forest service, one hiking club in the mountains has stepped up to act as a clearinghouse for trail conditions. The Carolina Mountain Club, a hiking club with more than 1,000 members, has an impressive system for collecting and cataloging feedback on trail problems from hikers across the mountains. The information they glean is used to direct their army of trail maintenance volunteers.
“When people use trails and spot problems, they let us know,” said Becky Smucker, a volunteer trail crew leader with Carolina Mountain Club. “It is extremely helpful. When I got to planning I look to see if people have reported issues in certain areas.”
Trail users are fairly sophisticated when reporting trail problems, which is done through the club’s web site. Hikers share approximate mileage from the trail head and trail junctions, and offer up details like the diameter of fallen trees so maintenance crews can plan what kind of tools to pack in.
That’s exactly the thing the forest service would like to have as it attempts to get a handle on trails statuses.
“With more knowledge of what’s out there we can better prioritize trails for our maintenance schedule,” Cohen said.
Last year, the forest service took on the rather daunting job of doing a trail inventory. Rangers hiked more than 500 miles of trail noting the status of the trail. It was a massive undertaking, but at the same time, it only represented a third of all the “official” trails in the forest service system.
While more people are using the trails than ever before, hotspots seem to be bearing the brunt of it. Shining Rock, Graveyard Fields, Max Patch, Tsali — these places are stand-out resources with lots of trails for the choosing and consistently get profiled in hiking books or “best of” trail lists. The trail heads are easy to find and not too far afield. And the hordes respond.
“The use in a lot of places is concentrated. It would be great if the use could be dispersed,” Martin said.
That’s one positive of the many hiking clubs in the mountains. They introduce hikers to trails that aren’t on people’s radar.
“That is probably the most common reason I hear for people participating in the club because they get to places they wouldn’t get to otherwise,” said Becky Smucker, a hike leader with Carolina Mountain Club, which schedules roughly 200 hikes a year. “Just to find the trail head that is a big part of it, as well as navigating your way around the trail.”
Kimenker said popularity is taking its toll on the trails as well as the forest ecology of Panthertown Valley. Keeping Panthertown wild and from being “loved to death” was one of the reasons Friends of Panthertown formed in 2007, hoping to engage those who frequent Panthertown in its protection.
The forest service may ultimately decommission trails traversed less often. If they can’t get more volunteer trail crews to step up, and they don’t have enough resources to perform maintenance on all 1,600 miles of trail in the Pisgah and Nantahala, trails that rarely get hiked will have to written off.
But that’s not the secret goal of the forest service in calling for a public trail planning process.
“We are not going in to it saying we have too many trails,” Cohen said.
Nonetheless, if some trails are so infrequently used or in such bad shape that the effort of maintenance isn’t worth the return, it may make sense.
“Some of these trails you can’t even find because they aren’t used. If they aren’t being used, would we want to prioritize our resources for trails that are more used,” Cohen said. “It is likely some will be closed.”
In principle, closing trails is something that the Carolina Mountain Club opposes. As the most influential hiking club, boasting 1,000 members, the Carolina Mountain Club packs some weight when it comes to public land policy.
“In most cases, we do oppose decommissioning hiking trails,” Marcia Bromberg, the club’s president, said.
But, there are instances where the logic of closing a trail is blatantly obvious.
“We understand there are hard to reach trails that are just going to disappear over time,” Bromberg said.
Some trails are a losing battle, having been poorly routed in the first place.
“You can’t maintain trails that are falling off the side of the mountain,” Kimenker said.
While a few trails, it seems, will inevitably bite the dust, the forest service will likely add others to its official network. In particular, the forest service would like to build missing links to create more loop trails.
The forest service also hopes to identify trails with intrinsic shortcomings — trails that pass through boggy areas or that are too steep and prone to erosion — that could be rerouted over more suitable terrain and thus reduce a maintenance nightmare.
Martin said it is refreshing to see the forest service and the outdoors community hammering out trail issues.
While the national forests are clearly beginning to show wear and tear around the edges as more people flock to the woods, it’s a better problem to have than the knock-down drag outs over logging and clear-cutting that once dominated their relationship with the forest service.
“I think 15 or 20 years ago, recreation wouldn’t be the number one issue we are talking about for the Nantahala and Pisgah,” Martin said.
Bromberg pointed out that the forest service in the scheme of things is new to the trail business.
“Their primary mission is forestry, growing and cutting trees,” Bromberg said. “This whole recreation thing is something they probably struggle with nationally.”
Want to weigh in?
The U.S. Forest Service wants your input to formulate a trail strategy for the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests. Any hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders are encouraged to participate by offering their thoughts and views about the trails.
A public meeting will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, in Franklin at the Macon County Community Facilities Building at 1288 Georgia Road. Other meetings include Jan. 19 at Mars Hill College Peterson Conference Room and Jan. 30 in Brevard at the Hampton Inn.