At Risk in the Forest: US GAO Report Identifies Maintenance Gaps on Trails

SILVER SPRING, MD– July 12, 2013 – The United States Forest Service (USFS) manages an incredible 158,000 miles of trails on more than 150 National Forests and Grasslands.  Millions of Americans utilize these trails as a way to connect with nature and engage in physical activity. A recent government study[i] issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that while the Forest Service does a good job overall of offering trail-users recreational opportunities and maintaining the most popular trails, there remains a significant maintenance backlog and a large gap exists between trail maintenance needs and available resources.  The Forest Service estimates the backlog to be in excess of $300 million with another $200 million needed for annual maintenance, capital improvement, and operations.

Such a sizable maintenance gap can cause trails to become unsafe, environmentally unsustainable, and also inhibit the recreation experience of users such as hikers, bikers and equestrians.  Trails without proper maintenance can become unsafe whether it be from fallen trees, overgrown trail brush making markers difficult to use or even unstable bridges.

The Forest Service has long counted on a combination of both internal and external resources to help with trail maintenance. Volunteer labor is one of the agency’s most important forms of external help for trail maintenance.  In fiscal year 2012, the Forest Service placed a $26 million value on volunteer labor.

American Hiking Society (AHS) tremendously values the iconic foot trails found in so many National Forests throughout the nation.  Hikers abound on trails from the Pacific Northwest to the greater Southeast and are passionate about these lands and trails.  Gregory Miller, American Hiking Society President, is concerned with the maintenance challenges.  “Hiking ranks as one of the top activities visitors participate in when visiting our nation’s forests,” said Miller.  “American Hiking Society believes that it is imperative that all trails be maintained in a safe manner.  AHS looks forward to continuing to work with the Forest Service to provide much-needed volunteer stewardship on its trails.”

AHS strongly believes in “getting out and giving back.”  National Trails Day, American Hiking Society’s annual celebration of trails held the first Saturday in June is a model of volunteer stewardship.  In 2012, 3,243 volunteers maintained 344 miles of Forest Service trails through stewardship projects on National Trails Day.

American Hiking Society also sent 20 Volunteer Vacations crews on week-long work trips to National Forests in 2012.  Over 100 AHS volunteers worked on Forest Service trails, contributing 4,880 hours of labor, worth an estimated $106,189.  Bill Broadbear, who has served as a USFS host for multiple AHS crews in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in Utah expressed his appreciation for the program, “AHS volunteers have proven an invaluable resource for our forest, taking on a wide variety of trail-related projects over the last 15 years. Their willingness to take on challenging trails projects has been an inspiration to those of us who have worked with them.”

The recent GAO report suggests that the Forest Service can enhance and expand their use of volunteers in trail maintenance efforts both in the short term as well as working towards reduction of the maintenance backlog.  AHS applauds the report’s suggestion that the agency take steps to improve their engagement of volunteers. In today’s economic environment volunteers continue to prove themselves as an extremely cost-effective method to keep America’s trails ready for today’s hikers as well as future generations.

About American Hiking Society
Founded in 1976, American Hiking Society is the only national, recreation-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and protecting America’s hiking trails, their surrounding natural areas and the hiking experience. To learn more about American Hiking Society and its mission and programs, visit or call (301) 565-6704.


Long- and Short-Term Improvements Could Reduce Maintenance Backlog and Enhance System Sustainability

GAO-13-618, Jun 27, 2013

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