NACHES, Wash. -- It was a little bit as if the sacrificial lamb had invited the lions to the party.
Naches Ranger District ranger Irene Davidson had an agenda she needed to move on with at Tuesday night's Trails and Wilderness Interest Group meeting: determine what trails mattered the most to the most people.
But she was standing in the middle of the ranger station's largest conference room, which was overflowing with more than 100 trail users, and most of them had a very different agenda: fight trail closures of any kind, even if it meant raising their voices just a bit.
"I think you guys think that we've got a plan to close trails this year," Davidson said to the crowd. "What we have planned is a seasonal closure on the motorized trails, which we've done several times in the past and we plan on doing again this year. I know it uses the word closure, and whenever we use that, people's hackles get raised.
"But we have no plans to close any trails this year. We don't have a piece of paper saying what trails we plan to close. The Travel Management Plan, that's another thing completely."
But with the Travel Management Plan, which calls for districts to prioritize roads and trails, and the district facing a likely 10 percent cut in its budget this year, the suspicion was inescapable. No matter how earnestly Davidson reiterated her contention that trails weren't on the verge of being closed, many in the room simply weren't buying it.
"I've got a business that relies on these recreation trails," said Bill Grubin, who owns a cycle shop in Yakima. "You shut these trails down, and these businesses are going to fall like flies."
Some audience members were adamant that representatives of their user groups were being left off the Trails and Wilderness Interest Group (TWIG) subcommittee considering the trails issue. Others wanted to know why the district was considering trail closures -- even under the Travel Management Plan process -- when there were volunteers ready and willing to help keep those trails clear.
"Wouldn't it make more sense," one man offered, "to keep the trails open and let us volunteer our time so you get more matching money from government?"
Davidson said budgets could only be made based on what resources they can control and count on. "I can't convince Congress you're not going to walk away, so they're going to deal with what they can control, which is the budget. They don't know if they can count on the help."
"We're offering it all the time, lady," another man interjected. "You just don't listen to it."
Another spectator then suggested, "Why don't we all just shut up and let (Davidson) speak?"
The throng quieted down when Paula Heaverlo, a Backcountry Horsemen volunteer and a TWIG member said the district put far too much stock in the "maintained to standard" phrasing in its trail-system guidelines.
"If you've been volunteering in this district, I can't remember a time when any roads and trails were maintained to standard," she said, adding that she didn't think doing so "is a realistic goal right now."
Heaverlo suggested creating volunteer coordinators -- nominating Backcountry Horsemen notable Mike Drougas and four-wheeler/motorcycle enthusiast and longtime trails volunteer Ron Rutherford -- to serve as conduits between district staff and user groups.
They could more easily muster up volunteers whenever necessary, she said, suggesting the district try such a program for one year ... and not close any trails in the meantime.
"You have so much power up there, and I really want to encourage you to use it in a positive way," Heaverlo said to Davidson. "You've encouraged all these people to be here, take all their ideas and run with them. This is like a second job to all of us. We're here to keep everything open."
Heaverlo's statement drew rousing applause from the assemblage, but didn't seem to carry much weight with the district ranger, who hurried the agenda forward to the trail-mapping process.
Most of the crowd broke into smaller groups at different tables, Jeepers at one table, motorcyclists at another, hikers at a third and so on. Some, having said their piece or not interested in participating in the process, left. But the general level of uncertainty remained.
"Take note about how she said trails won't be closed this year. That's because the Travel Management Plan won't be coming out this year," said Wade Kabrich, a motorized trail user and a member of the TWIG trails-use subcommittee studying the options. Once that plan comes out in 2013 or beyond, he added, "They're most definitely in danger of being closed."
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