Naches Ranger District trail users at odds with district over possible closures
By Scott Sandsberry
Before too long -- this year, perhaps, or 2013 -- some trails within the Naches Ranger District will be closed in response to Forest Service budget cuts.
And the four-wheelers, snowmobilers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, skiers and hikers who use the trails are so up in arms about it that tonight's meeting of the district's Trails and Wilderness Interest Group (TWIG) is almost certain to draw an overflow crowd.
Many of those outdoor enthusiasts who attend these meetings -- which serve as a conduit between the ranger district and its most fervent user groups -- believe they're about to lose access to fully one-10th of the district's trails. That's not the case, said District Ranger Irene Davidson, but some trail closures are almost a certainty.
"A decision is going to have to be made," Davidson said, noting that the decision-making process will depend on input from tonight's meeting -- specifically on which trails users want to keep open.
"Our budget is not as good as what we thought it was going to be," Davidson said, adding that the current omnibus spending bill would mean cutting the district's budget by roughly 10 percent.
"I can't look at these people and say, 'We've got 1,100 miles of trail and by God we're going to keep all of them maintained with absolutely no budget. That's just ridiculous.
"At what point do (trail users) not think we need to tighten our belts?"
Trail-group representatives at TWIG meetings have repeatedly responded to the district's trail-closure suggestions with offers of volunteer trail-maintenance crews.
"Our trails are not in bad shape. They're really not," said Carol Swan, a Backcountry Horsemen of Washington member from Selah. "And they've got (TWIG) people raising their hands wanting to volunteer and help. And the Forest Service's response is to close."
Even the format of tonight's TWIG meeting, in which the visitors will be asked to argue on behalf of their favorite trails, grates on Swan.
"(Davidson) should have to justify closing a trail," Swan said, "rather than we having to justify why to keep it open."
The Forest Service's current Travel Management Plan process requires each district to identify roads and trails it can manage with its current staffing -- and, by extension, identify likely motorized roads and trails for closure.
"What I've been preaching is, 'Tell me about the trail, tell me why it's important to you, so we can start talking about where to spend our money to get the best bang for our buck,'" Davidson said.
Trail enthusiasts, she said, "are just fearful. And no matter how many times I try to tell them, my goal is not to get them out of the forest. My goal is to make my business run here. If I have $100, where do you want me to spend it?"
Some recreationists, though, believe that -- despite Davidson's contention that she's "tried to be so transparent with this whole process" -- district staffers aren't being entirely above-board.
In one recent meeting, Davidson showed photographs of a trails area devastated by four-wheeler use, using the ugly images as an example of why some trails should be closed to motorized traffic.
The problem with that example, said several trail users in attendance, was that the photographs -- taken in the Sleepy Park area off Forest Road 1202 near White Pass -- were more than 30 years old, the area having long ago been rehabilitated.
Walls have definitely gone up between Davidson and some user-group representatives, as evidenced by the November TWIG meeting when she pointed out two attendees and said she didn't want them on any trail-use committees.
One of them, longtime four-wheeler and trail-maintenance volunteer Ron Rutherford, said he was told by other attendees he was persona non grata because he was "set in his ways" and was "not moving in (Davidson's) direction."
"I told Irene it's OK we don't agree," Rutherford said. "She has a job to do, and I have a dedication to recreation and keeping public lands open to recreation.
"My take on this is that for management and Irene, it's easier to close and eliminate than deal with the problem."
And that problem may go beyond just the trails themselves.
"If they close a lot of these trails like they want to, businesses up here or on White Pass, we're going to go down the tubes, pretty much," said Pam Remley, who works at the Woodshed store on State Route 410.
"Right now there's no snow, and (business is) so slow we're just kind of twiddling our thumbs. You've got income and revenue down, employees getting laid off, and if recreation goes down to practically nothing and people don't want to come recreate here, what's going to happen?
"It's a big, vicious circle. It's not just the trails. It's revenue. It's the economy. It's frustrating."
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