For many northwesterners, summer means an all-too-brief window to capitalize on the region’s natural heritage. For a few months city-dwellers like myself become schizophrenics—living in an apartment during the week and waking up in a sleeping bag on the weekends. Northwesterners have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to trails and wilderness within a short drive of our cities. In the wild country of the Northwest’s mountains, it is still possible to find solitude on high country trails, in alpine lake basins that look like Shangri La, and in ancient dark forests.

But our ability to experience those places is facing a very real threat because many of the best trails to those refuges are going extinct. In some cases, the loss of trails is an especially bitter pill to swallow because there is comparatively ample funding for the roads that lead to those vanishing trails.

In the US Northwest, the vast majority of our precious natural beauty is not managed by northwesterners, but by two federal agencies, the US Forest Service, which operates national forests, and the National Park Service. Both agencies are badly under-funded and short-handed.

In fact,the Forest Service is already beginning to sell off assets. Many national forests lack the resources necessary even to maintain their crumbling infrastructures of campgrounds, forest roads, boat launches, and trails. National forests are increasingly dependent on volunteers and private funding to make up for the severe shortfall of federal dollars.

Here’s a case study that hits very close to home for an estimated 5 million northwesterners: the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest—the huge swath of federal land that blankets the west side of the Cascade Mountains from the Canadian border to Mount Rainier National Park. Right now, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie’s website says:

While it appears that repairs to roads are largely funded and most will eventually be made, the same can not yet be said for the trail system.

Here’s why.

In October 2003, an autumn deluge of unheard of proportions swept away large chunks of well-known routes like the Pacific Crest Trail, the Stehekin Valley trails, and many others. In fact, the flood did about $4.5 million in damage just to trails in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, not counting additional havoc in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. (For more on this, read my article that appeared in the Seattle Weekly in May 2004 linking the trail damage to climate change.) 

Even now, in 2005, the National Forest has only about one-tenth of the necessary funding to make the repairs. Groups like Washington Trails Association and The Mountaineers have made heroic efforts to help the National Forest win funding and have volunteered countless hours to help repair the damage. But the fundamental problem is too great to be overcome by volunteers: the forest simply needs more money for trails and the federal government isn’t about to supply anywhere near the money required.

But there is plenty of money available for repairing the many forest roads that were damaged by the October floods. (The floods did a number on the roads too, most notoriously the popular Mountain Loop Highway that no longer makes a loop because of washouts near Barlow Pass. Still, road repair is pretty much a sure thing.) The Federal Highway Administration operates a program called the Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO, for short) and the National Forest was able to qualify for ERFO funding to repair most of the flood damage.

The problem, of course, is that hikers and other recreationists may be left with roads that lead to trailheads, but no actual trails. This is not just a bizarre hypothetical. The White Chuck River Road is slated for repairs soon, but to my knowledge there are not enough resources to repair the White Chuck Trail that leads to Kennedy Hot Springs, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the shortest route of the several long routes up Glacier Peak, a popular mountaineering destination.

Don’t blame local Forest Service officials—they’re making the best of incredibly scarce resources. Instead, you can blame federal funding scarcity—and restrictions on existing funding—that hamstrings forests like the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie.

Without trails, recreation in national forests becomes based on either internal combustion or on the strength, skill, and time to navigate large stretches of difficult trail-less country. The latter is a more authentic wilderness experience, I suppose, but certainly not something the whole family can enjoy.

One possible solution is to convert some of the roads, or portions of them, to trails. Olympic National Forest has experimented with this solution with the damaged Dossewallips River Road that once led to trails to Lake Constance and Mount Constance, near Hood Canal. It’s controversial to say the least. One the up side: the forest gains a few additional miles of trail and the area’s natural resources are arguably better preserved. On the downside: some of the best  destinations in the forest are put out of reach of day hikers and families. (The same thing effectively happened years ago on the gated road to Monte Cristo that is now mainly the province of mountain bikes and hiking boots.)

Settling on the right mix of access roads, good trails, and deep (trail-less) wilderness is not easy. In any mix, however, it’s galling to find that there is ample funding for cars, but very little for feet.

There ought to be a large natural constituency for the trails of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie. The forest is located within a 70-mile drive of over 3.6 million Washingtonians (and also nearby to 1.5 million British Columbians). No surprise, it’s one of the most heavily visited national forests in the country and in recent years it has also become one of the most devoted to trail-based recreation.

It’s something of a truism to urge people to contact their representatives in Congress, but that really is one of the best things you can do for trails in the Northwest. Congress controls the purse strings and has the power to fund trail restoration and maintenance. And then when you’ve done that, hook up with Washington Trails Association or the Mountaineers—they are vocal advocates for muscle-powered recreation on federal land and. They also put their muscles where their mouths are, donating thousands of hours of work to help repair trails.

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie is a national gem. Just a short drive from downtown skyscrapers you can find your way into more than 1.3 million acres of designated wilderness and even today find plenty of places to be alone with jaw-dropping scenery. If we can’t find money to protect our nearest and dearest natural places, is there any hope for the far-flung and less-visited wild places that make the Northwest special?