Guest Opinion: Restore Oregon's trail systems

    Following the 2017 fire season, there's already a raucous dialog dominated by special interests with multi-million dollar budgets that capture the attention of lawmakers.

    Left behind are Oregon's great trail systems. Groups like mine are too busy working to get the ear of politicians. And I don't know much about forestry, politics or fire science, but I do very well know trails and what fires do to them.

    First they start to erode, and some trees fall, but the peak punishment from fires typically occurs eight to 12 years after the blaze is out. Burned logs form massive slash piles that force trail users to crawl and climb through dangerous logjams, or more likely, turn around and go home. Brush explodes. The trail disappears.

    By then, the fire that caused the damage is old news. Restoration funds have long dried up. The community's connection to the trail dries up, too, and our favorite places get pushed into a seemingly infinite backlog.

    A legacy is lost. And so is some revenue potential.

    A 2015 study by Oregon State University and Oregon State Parks reports hiking brings in about $1.1 billion in annual expenditures, $574 million of added value, and over 13,000 jobs. But money isn't the strongest argument to invest in trails. The strongest argument is cultural.

    Trails constitute the circulatory system of our national forests, where Oregonians go to reconnect with the land and with each other. Trails are how we get to our fishing holes, our hunting grounds, and where we discover our state.

    From the Kalmiopsis and the Red Buttes to Eagle Creek, to Mount Jefferson, the Umpqua Divide, John Day and the Eagle Cap, trails are how Oregonians from all walks of life interact with our landscape.

    Hyperbole? No. The narrative is real. I've been living it for the past 11 years, working with dedicated land managers to keep alive Southwest Oregon's backwoods trails. The process works in this corner of Oregon because our hearts are in it.

    Now it's time for our congressional leaders to put their hearts into it, too. Close the door on special interests and focus on restoring this crumbling infrastructure.

    A long-term trail fund would provide an opportunity to thoughtfully plan. It would put some people to work, and foster economic activity in our rural communities. And in their utilitarian functionality, trail repair brings broad public support, is relatively inexpensive and is tangible.

    Our communities need stronger congressional support to secure a future in the outdoors for all Oregonians from all walks of life. Drop D.C. politics and provide long-term funding for Oregon's trails today, so that they're here tomorrow.

    And the offer still stands to my congressional delegates: If you can't better fund our crumbling trail infrastructure, feel free to make up the difference through some sweat equity. I'm more than happy to put any lawmaker on one end of a crosscut saw to help save a backcountry trail.

    — Gabriel Howe of Ashland is executive director of Siskiyou Mountain Club, a 501(c)(3) public charity. He's a fifth-generation Oregonian and enjoys hard work and play in the backwoods.

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