WHETHER THEY REALIZE it or not, trail users, volunteer organizations and business owners who benefit from tourism dollars share a common interest in the care and preservation of our forest lands.
Last month, I shared how volunteer work from Tom Mix, along with fellow members of Back Country Horseman’s Peninsula Chapter, created a safer horse trailer parking area for Dungeness Meadows. Yet he encountered a road block when offers to help on trail maintenance have been denied.
For a number of years, I’ve heard complaints that the Olympic National Forest Service district managers of the Pacific Ranger District station in Forks and the Hood Canal Ranger District station in Quilcene are actively working to decommission roads and purposefully not repairing or replacing failed bridges in order to close them all and “get them off our books.”
Surely, I thought, that can’t be true. I didn’t think much more about it until I recently heard Mix venting his frustrations over repeatedly hearing a “no” to his offers from the chapter to repair and/or replace a number of failing bridges in the Olympic National Forest Service trails located outside the Brinnon/Quilcene area.
All of the chapter’s labor is offered free to the NFS, and materials used are often paid for with grant money.
Since he retired from his career as an engineer at Boeing, Mix, who graduated from Penn State with a degree in engineering science and mechanics, along with retired logger Del Sage, who’s spent decades logging trees using wire-rope cable logging systems and his draft horses in environmentally sensitive areas, have worked closely with other volunteers to replace bridges for six different forest managers: U.S. Olympic National Park, U.S. Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the state Department of Natural Resources, Clallam County, North Olympic Land Trust and Washington State Parks.
“And they’re all very supportive of us,” Mix said. “It’s only the National Forest Rangers in Quilcene who won’t let us help them.
“We gave a list of six bridges in need of repair that we could replace for them in kind, and all were denied.”
When he alerted the station there was a big safety problem with crossing the Snoqualmie foot log and offered for the BCH to replace it, he said he was told, “ ‘No, we’re not going to replace it. Hikers will just have to ford it.’ Well, that shuts the hikers out 10 months of the year because the Snoqualmie has such a high flow the rest of the year it’s not safe to ford.”
Mix said he met the Hood Canal District Ranger, Yewah (pronounced EE-wah) Lau, when she first arrived at the ONF ranger station a few years ago to ask how the BCH could help with trail maintenance. Her station is one of the few that doesn’t have its own trail maintenance crew, thus has always relied on volunteer groups to repair and maintain the trails.
He is frustrated that Lau has yet to approve the chapter’s help to replace bridges.
He said he gave a proposal to ONF put in five backcountry privies, which are the 4-inch by 4-inch boxes with the flat top of the platforms with a hole to do your business in while enjoying the scenery and was again told no.
He wondered why his proposal was denied, especially when he learned counts of trail users were up more than 50 percent this summer over last year’s count in both the Olympic National Park and Forest.
“Since COVID, people have been sequestered at home or off work, so when the weather’s good, as it has been, they go out and recreate,” Mix said. “Most people don’t know about the ethics of Leave No Trace, and without privies, when I’m out there, I see these Charmin Blooms everywhere just off the trail.”
Of course he’s referring to little mounds of white toilet paper left behind after a person has eased their nature, so to speak, on the ground.
Leave No Trace is a nationally recognized program with seven guidelines designed to reduce each visitor to the backcountry’s impact on the forest. The third principle is Dispose of Waste Properly and includes depositing solid human waste in cat holes dug 6 to 8 inches deep and at least 200 feet from water, camp and trails. Cover and disguise the hole when finished.
“What’s really frustrating to me is we have this tremendous skill set in the Back Country Horseman, along with Washington Trails Association, and we have a local national forest organization that does not give us the thumbs up on us helping them,” Mix said.
Not wanting to throw Hood Canal District Ranger Lau under the bus, so to speak, over her repeatedly denying the Peninsula Chapter’s requests to help, I called.
The first question I asked was, “Is it true the forest service is trying to discourage user access by decommissioning roads and trails?”
I said the proof can be seen by the unprecedented amount of road closures, lack of road maintenance, missing trail signs, missing trailhead parking and not replacing failing or failed bridges.
“That is absolutely not true,” she said. “There is no written or unwritten policy to discourage user access. And I would say our agency tries really hard to encourage people to connect with the outdoors and enjoy public lands. Our struggle is that we have a limited capacity of funding and resources to meet the demands.”
It was a surprise for her to learn Mix was a structural engineer capable of designing the bridge according to NFS regulations, and her engineer would only have to look his design over and approve it.
Referencing the road closures, she said the current road system was built when there was a lot of logging and clear-cut logging, so those trucks kept the roads free of new growth and open to travel on the forest. In the past few years, the ONF’s funding, along with other national forests and parks, has received drastic budget cuts, to the point where she said, “I think we only have enough funding to adequately maintain maybe 20 percent of our road system.”
She’s faced with other challenges when trying to repair, replace or rebuild roads and structures that have been washed out by storms.
“It’s not that we don’t want to rebuild or maintain, but we also have to be responsible land stewards and consider what is best for the land, wildlife habitat and fish in the streams.”
Risk assessments, engineers and the people needed to oversee the work cost money she simply doesn’t have the budget for right now.
I asked if money is such a constraint then why does she continually deny requests to help from experienced volunteers such as Mix and the BCH?
“Because I, as a government representative, hold the liability if someone were to get injured on the site,” she said. “So that element of risk falls on me.”
She also mentioned every person in her office holds a number of responsibilities. For example, the wildlife biologist has projects and is in charge of timber sales, and right now she doesn’t have anyone available to go out to oversee the bridgework.
This year the station didn’t host the Quilcene Ranger Corps youth trail program, because Lau said she didn’t have the money to hire someone to lead the program.
Some of her employees, as well as her regional district manager in Olympia, have been out helping to fight wildfires in Oregon. That kind of struck me as odd: Forest service employees were off fighting fires, and in other states? Isn’t that job of firefighters?
Did you know the cost of fighting national forest wildfires came out of the NFS budget? I didn’t. I looked up the NFS budget on the government website, www.fs.usda.gov. There, I read a jaw-dropping report on the Cost of Fire Operations for the U.S. Forest Service. Did you know in 2017 costs exceeded $2.4 billion?
With each succeeding year, we’ve had more fires, resulting in higher firefighting costs and more money taken from local ranger station budgets, which directly impacts all programs, including road and trail maintenance.
Seems to me the budget and service for fighting wildland fires should be its own entity — National Forest Fire Fighters Service, or NFFFS.
We live in difficult times. Lau said she welcomes more ongoing discussions with volunteers to find creative ways to overcome budget constraints. And she’s now reached out to Mix to discuss ways they can work together.
Equestrians take note: In July, state parks and recreation issued a survey to a select cross-section of Miller Peninsula State Park users through email and at certain parks sites throughout the state. The survey requested input on what should be in the new park.
The survey did not include trails for horse riding. The state parks is aware of that omission. In order to convey the importance of keeping the trail system at Miller open to all users, hikers, bicyclists and equestrians, please send comments of support to the state Parks and Recreation Department via the project webpage: bit.ly/MillerPenPlan.
Scroll down to Miller Planning and Input. Comments will be accepted through Oct. 31.
If you have any questions, please contact Peninsula Chapter of BCHW at pbchw.org or phone member Linda Morin at 360-775-5060.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.