As recreational interests continue to grow in Big Sky country, public demand for expanded trail networks on Montana’s 30 million acres of public land is keeping pace. But a recent audit of the state’s Recreational Trails Program shows funding for new trails is out of step with the suite of projects bidding for financial support.
According to a recent “Montana Trails in Crisis” report by the Montana Trails Coalition, Congress has cut trail funding by 32 percent since 1980, leaving national forests with a $296 million maintenance backlog. At the same time, trails are in more demand than ever, the report states, with state park visitation having risen 33 percent since 2012, and showing no sign of slowing.
“The public land access that we enjoy is built on the careful protection and preservation efforts of the generations that preceded us,” the report states. “But after decades of neglect, our trails are eroding, our trailheads are falling apart, and our access is threatened as a result. As Montana grows and pressure on our public land infrastructure increases, investing in our trails is an ever more important part of preserving our way of life.”
The Recreational Trails Program has generated more than $24 million for 267 motorized and non-motorized trail projects that preserve Montana’s legacy of accessible public lands for hunting, hiking, motorized use, and biking since 2014. But the report shows that 128 projects were left unfunded, leaving millions of dollars on the table as the demand for public trails continues to grow.
In the past half-decade, spending on outdoor recreation has increased 22 percent, from $5.8 billion in 2013 to $7.1 billion today, a boom that has generated $2.2 billion in wages and supports 71,000 jobs.
Created in 1991, the Recreational Trails Program directs U.S. Department of Transportation funding to states to build and maintain trails for a variety of activities. In the last 25 years, states have received more than $1.3 billion in funding for local projects, and in Montana the projects are administered through a competitive grant application process managed by the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
One example of a missed funding opportunity in Montana left the Ten Lakes Snowmobile Club near Eureka without an ADA-compliant trailhead at its Birch Creek access site, despite its request for $15,000 to renovate and improve the popular trailhead.
The Montana Trails Coalition that commissioned the report bills itself as a coalition of diverse user groups that support trail and outdoor recreation opportunities for all Montana trail users — motorized, non-motorized, equestrians, and bikers.