Trail triage? Tough choices ahead as forest service weighs 1,600 miles in trail plan
For the past year, the National Forest Service has been taking inventory, collecting public input and meeting with outdoor interest groups to wrangle its expansive web of nearly 1,600 miles of trail in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests into a better, more sustainable network.
This month, the forest service will share its preliminary assessment from the “Trail Strategy Initiative” with mountain residents.
Erik Crews, dispersed recreation program manager for national forests in North Carolina, said the forest service has received hundreds of suggestions, from signage to trail conditions to new trails.
Some will be handled in the near future by forest service rangers, such as minor maintenance work. But others — such as major trail repairs or the re-routing of a trail — would have to go through a more extensive planning and approval process.
But all feedback will be used in outlining a plan for the future of hiking, biking and equestrian trails in the regions’ forests.
Crews said the ultimate goal of the trails project is to leave the forest service with a system of trails that is well-designed, regularly maintained and provides a broad range of recreational opportunities in key locations.
That may mean closing certain trails in the Pisgah and Nantahala forests. The 1,600 miles of trail on the ground may simply be too many for the forest service and its army of trail volunteers in the region to maintain, especially considering chronic maintenance issues that plague some trails.
Crews said keeping those trails may actually be counterproductive to the goal of providing a good trail experience to visitors.
“From the very beginning, one of the themes in this process was that we wanted to emphasize a quality trail experience over the quantity of trail miles,” Crews said. “If you have bunch of trail miles out there without the budget or volunteer trail groups to maintain them, it’s not sustainable and not a good experience for the user.”
Crews said the Trails Strategy Initiative was not undertaken with the specific goal of reducing the mileage of trails in the forests, but suggestions of trails to be decommissioned were taken from the project’s collaborators.
During the years, the forest service budget for trail maintenance has declined, while visitors have increased. The Pisgah and Nantahala get approximately 4.6 million visitors each year.
The divergent figures — budgets down, while use is up — have created a growing trail management problem for an agency already largely dependant on volunteers for its trail work.
Furthermore, a large number of trails were poorly designed or located in the first place, making the maintenance problem two-fold. Many trails in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests were not initially conceived as sustainable trails designed for long-term use but were inherited by the forest service. A poorly designed trail can easily become rutted and eroded, washing sediment into streams and making hiking unpleasant.
“The more trails we can get that are properly located, designed, built and maintained will increase the quality of experience,” Crews said. “Even if we did decrease the overall mileage.”
Since early 2012, the forest service has collected hundreds of comments and worked with dozens of representatives from outdoor groups — including hiking, biking and equestrian clubs — who have an interest in the forests’ trails. But, in regards to what trails the forest service should close, Crews said staff received very few comments from the run-of-the-mill general public during the course of the year.
However, he surmised that trails suitable for decommissioning probably aren’t on anyone’s radar.
“People aren’t using them anyway,” Crews said. “And so they may not have thought to suggest them for decommissioning.”
Forest service spokesman Stevin Westcott said the feedback from the trail strategy process will also fit nicely into a larger, multi-year forest management planning process that will guide priorities and decision making in the Pisgah and Nantahala for years to come. He said a major shift is taking place in terms of forest use.
Westcott said logging has declined 65 percent compared to 20 years ago. Meanwhile, recreation in the national forests, including trails, has been gaining popularity. However, that doesn’t mean recreation budgets have necessarily been keeping pace, he said.
“Recreation has become one of the biggest issues we’ve been working on” Westcott said. “As federal budgets decline and we get increased visitation, we have to balance what we can afford and what people want.”
Join the conversation
The forest service will present finding of its yearlong Trail Strategy Initiative at two public meetings:
• Nantahala National Forest presentation will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Feb. 19, at the First Presbyterian Church in Franklin.
• Pisgah National Forest presentation will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 14, at UNC-Asheville’s Sherrill Center.