Tester’s Bill to Improve Access to Montana’s Public Lands Heads to President’s Desk

Senatorâ??s Legislation will Strengthen Trail Systems

(Missoula, Mont.) – Senator Jon Tester’s bipartisan bill to improve access to Montana’s trails and great outdoors is now headed to the President’s desk for signature.

Tester’s National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act requires the Department of Agriculture to develop an innovative and cost-effective plan to address the Forest Service’s trail maintenance backlog.

“Montana’s trails belong to all of us and we must ensure they continue to provide access to our state’s most treasured places. This bill will strengthen the gateways to our favorite hunting and fishing spots and improve forest management,” Tester said. “Addressing the trail maintenance backlog is definitely a step in the right direction toward responsible land management, but we must also fix how we pay to fight wildfires.”

The National Forest System includes over 157,000 miles of trails, but due to budget cuts and staff shortages the Forest Service is only currently able to maintain about a quarter of those trails. The agency faces a trail maintenance backlog of $314 million, impeding access to public lands and recreational opportunities for hunters, hikers, fishers, and all other folks that enjoy the state’s great outdoors.

In order to address this backlog in a cost-effective way, the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act directs the Department of Agriculture to create a plan to double the amount of trail maintenance performed by partners and volunteers over the next five years. In the first six months after the bill is passed, USDA is required to identify 9-15 priority areas for trail maintenance, and work to substantially increase volunteer participation in those areas. The Secretary may also enter into cooperative agreements with states, tribes, local governments, and private entities to help with maintenance.

Earlier this year, Tester forced the Obama Administration to abandon a plan to make significant cuts to trail maintenance efforts in Montana.

Tester believes that increasing volunteer participation is a creative and cost-effective way to help maintain our trails, but the larger problem with Forest Service funding persists. Twenty years ago, the Forest Service set aside 16 percent of its budget to fight wildfires. Today, wildfire costs consume more than half of the Forest Service’s budget, and that figure is estimated to rise to more than 66 percent by the year 2025. The growing cost of fighting wildfires leaves little in the budget for other essentials like trail maintenance. That’s why Tester has introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would fund fighting catastrophic wildfires the same way we fund other natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tornados.