I have a great fondness for the people who cut logs that block hiking trails.
Especially when they cut the logs before I hike the trail.
My liver, to get to the heart of the matter, so to speak, is also grateful for their exertions.
So are my kidneys and intestines and, lest I forget, my brain.
My organs and I have an affinity for these saw-wielding workers not solely, or even largely, because I used to be one of them.
My two-year tenure on a trail-clearing crew in the Elkhorn Mountains is immaterial, not to mention very nearly three decades in the past.
The reason I hold trail clearers in such high esteem is that I have a disturbing tendency to trip or topple or otherwise lose control of my body when I come across a log spanning the trail and try to get over, around or under the impediment.
This inevitably ends badly, which is to say painfully, the mountains being notably deficient in cushiony spots to land on.
(There is the occasional swamp, but trail designers typically route their paths around swamps, what with the mucky boots and everything.)
And so when I hike a trail that has been recently cleared of its most imposing obstacles I feel as though I have been given a great gift.
(The evidence in these cases is obvious — freshly cut log butts on either side of the trail, and fragrant drifts of sawdust on the ground.)
I was pleased, then, to learn that U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had designated a place where I hike as often as I can manage — the Wallowa Mountains — together with Hells Canyon as one of 15 priority areas for trail maintenance nationwide.
But my enthusiasm plummeted about as fast as my entire body plummets when I try to surmount a log across a trail.
Tom Montoya, supervisor of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, explained the situation, and it’s a statement that sums up the federal government about as well as any colorful epithet could.
“We don’t have a money commitment, but we are the region’s priority when they do allocate funds for trail maintenance,” Montoya said.
Which is rather like me walking into a Ferrari dealership and telling the salesman (or whatever more august title they reserve for people who peddle Ferraris) that I’m really excited about driving away in an exotic red sports car.
As soon as I win the lottery.
I’m tempted to compare the federal government’s impotence when it comes to routine trail maintenance to Washington’s failures in a host of other, more notable endeavors.
But it strikes me as misleading to suggest that neglecting hiking trails is in any way comparable to, say, failing to fix the interstate highway network or to get a handle on the healthcare system.
The problem is one of scale.
With healthcare we’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars.
Making significant progress on the backlog of highway and bridge work is also a proposition that requires enough zeros to make my eyes water and my head ache.
Yet when Perdue announced in February the 15 priority areas for trail maintenance, he noted that estimated cost of deferred maintenance on the nation’s trails is around $300 million.
That’s a considerable sum from my perspective, to be sure — and probably from yours. But at the federal level it is, to borrow a piquant term I heard from a legislator, “budget dust.”
But let’s parse this situation even further and look at the Wallowas and Hells Canyon, one of the 15 priority areas.
The Wallowa-Whitman could clear an awful lot of trails in those two areas at a cost that would better be described as “budget atoms” than “budget dust.”
If the Forest Service simply diverted the price of a couple of new pickup trucks or SUVs, for instance — let’s say $50,000 — it could make a noteworthy dent in the trail maintenance backlog for the Wallowas and Hells Canyon.
The agency has 10,039 four-wheel drive vehicles in its nationwide fleet, according to its latest budget document, and another 1,052 two-wheel drive pickups, vans and SUVs.
The Forest Service has also, in the past few years, shelled out $889,000 for a new building in Baker City, and $110,000 for a new sign at the building that houses the Wallowa-Whitman’s headquarters.
I understand that Congress doles out dollars to the Forest Service. But this is a stale excuse, and it fails to explain why the agency can lay out almost $1 million for a building that few members of the public will ever enter, but can’t get even a small fraction of that amount to work on trails that hundreds of people hike — or try to hike — each year.
I noted as well, in perusing that budget report, that the Forest Service expects to spend about $54 million on “land acquisition” during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
It seems reasonable to me that the agency would stop adding to its holdings at least until it’s capable of taking care of the acreage it’s already responsible for. But the strategy instead seems to be akin to paying the minimum payment on a hefty credit card debt — by acquiring new credit cards.
Except in reality the agency’s approach more resembles declaring bankruptcy, in the sense that it’s relying on somebody else to deal with the problem.
The 2016 National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the National Trails Act, celebrated the milestone not by announcing a new federal focus on, well, trails.
The goal instead? “To significantly increase the role of voluteers and partners in trail maintenance.”
We who hike in the Wallowas and Hells Canyon are fortunate that a dedicated group of volunteers has accepted that challenge. The Wallowa Mountains Hells Canyon Trails Association coordinated volunteer crews who in 2017, the Association’s first year, cleared sections of more than 10 trails.
Yet as grateful as I am for the volunteers, I find it ludicrous that the Forest Service, which spends about $1.7 billion per year managing national forests and grasslands — to be clear, this amount does not include firefighting — is unable to devote a relative handful of extra dollars to a task, clearing trails, that requires the tools of the 19th century rather than the 21st.
Shovels, crosscut saws and axes. Wielded by young, fit women and men who don’t require large salaries and who tend to be available during summer. Which happens to be the only time most of these trails are not snowbound.
J ayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.