The Pole Mountain Unit of the Medicine Bow National Forest is part of a nationwide effort by the U.S. Forest Service to ramp up community involvement in trail maintenance.
The effort began with the passage of the National Trails Stewardship Act in 2016, which directed the Forest Service to develop ways to include more volunteer labor as an answer to a growing backlog of needed maintenance.
From there, 15 sites around the country were selected as priority areas, where the first efforts to implement the Stewardship Act would take place.
One of those priority areas, named the Wyoming Forest Gateway Community Priority Area, consists of trails in four Wyoming forests — Bighorn, Medicine Bow, Shoshone and Bridger-Teton. The Pole Mountain Unit is the area of focus within the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Nicholas Walendziak with the Forest Service said there are 158,000 system trails on national forests, but only 25 percent meet agency standards for safety and quality. Meanwhile, the agency faces a $314 million maintenance backlog.
“The agency faces a pretty big backlog, which is another big reason why this (Stewardship Act) was put in place, to start chipping away,” he said during a meeting Tuesday, when members of the public met with Forest Service officials at Gateway sites to discuss how to get started.
The big-picture goal of the act is to double the number of volunteer hours dedicated to trail maintenance, he said.
“That’s a pretty big task, but we’re up for that,” Walendziak said.
Locally, the Pole Mountain Unit is already gaining momentum with volunteer partnerships. The advocacy group Wyoming Pathways secured state funding for a multi-year trail maintenance project that began in 2017. Plans are underway to continue that work this summer with help from groups such as the University of Wyoming Outdoor Program and Wyoming Conservation Corps.
Also, a new volunteer group called Common Outdoor Ground has formed and is ready to begin assisting area agencies. Volunteers will be working with the Forest Service this weekend to designate dispersed campsites near Vedauwoo.
Kristen Schmitt, who works with Forest Service volunteers, said more than 500 volunteers in Wyoming devoted almost 50,000 hours of documented work in 2017.
“I imagine that there’s a lot of other work that maybe went underreported,” she said.
Sandy Underhill, a Forest Service liaison to Wyoming State Parks, said the idea to establish the Gateway priority area was inspired in part by the Wyoming Outdoor Recreation Task Force, a statewide group that issued a report in 2017 with ideas for growing the outdoor recreation industry.
“We want Wyoming to be a role model or pilot area for other rural communities to come together,” she said.
She’s hoping success at Gateway sites will carry over into other communities to “create a long-lasting partnership structure.”
Jessica Crowder, a policy advisor for Gov. Matt Mead, agreed that the project has long-term potential.
“The vision is to learn from everything that happens this year,” she said.
“We want to build partnerships that are strong enough to last for generations.”
A steering committee for the Wyoming Forest Gateway Community Priority Area is planning to form a strategic plan to guide future efforts.