For many Idahoans, the coming of summer means that millions of acres of public lands are being released from winter’s grasp and the deep snows that make many areas inaccessible for more than half the year.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s budget proposal for the upcoming year means many of those roads and trails could remain closed because of an inability to fund necessary road maintenance and upkeep. What’s more, as roads and trails fall into disrepair, they become exponentially more expensive to fix in the future. As a result, taxpayers and public land users will fall deeper into proverbial (or actual) holes.
Despite pledges of massive infrastructure investments during the campaign, the reality is the administration is proposing draconian cuts to important programs that maintain access to our public lands.
So, What Are the Numbers?
In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service received $172 million for roads upkeep. In the proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget, the road maintenance budget is slashed by 56% to $75 million.
For trails, the proposed spending cuts are more drastic, with an 84% cut from $77 million to $13 million. But it’s not just a story of spending.
What Happens If We Fall Behind on Maintenance?
According to a Forest Service analysis of road maintenance, even based on a stable level of funding for road maintenance, the miles of roads open to passenger vehicles were expected to fall by 83%, from 70,000 miles of open roads to 12,000 miles. Without consistent maintenance, roads will reach a deterioration point where they “will require very large investments to rehabilitate them back to their original condition.” So, we might save money in the short-term, but in the long-term we’d pay more.
The Forest Service cannot afford to maintain the existing network of over 380,000 miles of roads, nearly eight times the length of the entire interstate highway system! In Idaho alone, the Forest Service manages more than 32,000 miles or roads.
Because the Forest Service can’t maintain all of these roads, since 2008 the Legacy Roads and Trails Program has focused resources to decommission unneeded roads and improve only necessary roads-thereby reducing taxpayer costs, and improving habitat for wildlife and sensitive fisheries. The program’s accomplishments, reported in the Forest Service Budget Proposal (p. 130), include over 18,000 miles of roads improved, fish-friendly passage at 1,000 sites provided, 141 bridges improved or replaced, and nearly 4,400 miles of trails improved. Despite these accomplishments, the Trump budget proposes to eliminate this program altogether.
What’s the Solution?
The good news is that many in Congress, including Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson, are unlikely to go along with the President’s proposals. Still, it never hurts to contact your member of Congress to let them know how these cuts would impact you and that you care about a program. If you love to get out and enjoy your national forests and other public lands, we encourage you to contact Rep. Simpson, who happens to be the only member of the Idaho congressional delegation who serves on the appropriations committee. Ask him to maintain or increase funding for the Legacy Roads and Trails Program and Roads Maintenance in the FY2018 Forest Service budget.