Helena Independent Record: Forest Service restores trails’ funding, Montana’s senators say

The U.S. Forest Service has reportedly reversed plans to deeply cut trail maintenance funding for the region including Montana, according to Montana’s senators.

The Forest Service earlier this year announced a change to its allocation formula for trail maintenance. Historically, funding weighted the expense of maintaining remote trails in wilderness areas, which favored the Northern Region including Montana and Idaho. The new formula focused more heavily on population and visitor days, giving more populous areas a funding boost.

The reallocation meant a 30 percent cut for the Northern Region phased in over three years, triggering a backlash from regional trail users and Montana’s senators. In a recent hearing with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, both Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester encouraged the agency to reconsider based on the economic and lifestyle impacts trails provide.

The senators released statements Friday applauding the Forest Service’s decision to restore funding, which spokespeople said was communicated to them by the Forest Service but has not been formally announced.

“Montana’s national forests and public lands are a treasured part of our state and today’s news ensures that Montanans will continue to enjoy our great outdoors,” Daines said Friday. “As an avid outdoorsman, I know how important maintaining and expanding access to our public lands are for our way of life. This is a welcome step to see the Forest Service value Montanans’ feedback and I will continue to press the Forest Service for strong trail budgets for Montana each and every year.”

“Montanans use public trails to hike, hunt, and experience our great outdoors,” Tester said Friday. “These trails are critically important to our outdoor economy, and restoring these damaging cuts will allow folks to continue to explore Big Sky Country. I appreciate the Forest Service taking another look at how important this is to Montana.”

Details were not yet available on the terms of the reversal, although Tester spokesman Dave Kuntz says they were told funding will be “almost whole”. A formal announcement from the Forest Service is expected next week, he said.

The Northern Region received more than $8.4 million in trail funding last year.

“That’s exactly the role of our senators to make sure that states with small populations like ours don’t get trampled,” said John Gatchell, federal lands policy director for the Montana Wilderness Association. “Shifting trail funds was destructive for states like Montana when 92 percent of our trails are on the forest, so it’s really great to see our senators working together.”

A call to the Forest Service’s Washington, D.C. office was not returned in time for this story.