More and more people are using publicly owned lands for recreation. Public agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand for rangers, trail maintenance – even the need to restock toilet paper in outhouses. The problem could get worse under President Trump’s hiring freeze.
The Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River rushes over forty miles from the North Cascades down into Puget Sound. It’s a big river, with enough rapids and undercurrents that only expert kayakers can navigate it. Mark Boyer’s been coming here since the 80's.
"I love this place. ... My friends get discouraged with me. They do interventions on me to get me out of the Middle Fork," Boyer said.
The Middle Fork Valley is publicly owned forest land less than an hour from downtown Seattle. But, to Boyer, it feels like he’s had the place to himself for decades. That’s because you’ve always had to take an old Forest Service road that was never meant for public use.
"I had an old subaru. I broke three axles over the 20 years I owned that poor thing. It felt like you were driving through a war zone or on the moon with all the craters," Boyer said.
But the road isn’t so rough anymore. In fact, by the end of the summer, it’ll be completely paved.
The new road could bring tens of thousands--or even hundreds of thousands--of visitors to the valley every year. But the valley might not be ready for them.
"Definitely having an outhouse at the beginning of the trail I think is important. I prefer trails where I know I’m not going to get lost," Nikki Eller said.
Nikki Eller does a lot of hiking in the Seattle area.
"The public lands are a public resource. They do belong to everybody. You do want everybody to be able to get out there," Eller said.
But the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which own the land, don’t always have the resources for outhouses and trail maintenance.
"They’re public lands that historically have been managed for timber by agencies that are skilled and experienced in managing lands for timber," Jon Hoekstra said.
Jon Hoekstra is the director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which is trying to work with public agencies to build trails and trailheads and outhouses for the Middle Fork Valley.
"A public wants to also use those lands for recreation, and the system hasn’t necessarily caught up with that demand. That might be the crux of the conundrum," Hoekstra said.
Infrastructure for visitors isn’t just for visitors. Martie Schramm’s the district ranger for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. She says trails and parking lots can help protect the forest by keeping people off fragile land.
"We don’t want them to take a user-created route down to a wetland or something," Schramm said.
Schramm says, in a perfect world, she’d have two employees overseeing just the Middle Fork Valley. Right now, she has no one.
That’s because, at the end of January, the employee responsible for overseeing recreation in the I-90 corridor left for another job.
"He was a key individual in writing grants and secured many grants for us which allowed us to hire quite a few temporary employees," Schramm said. "He was responsible for supervising our temporary workforce. He helped direct the work for volunteers, what trails they were going to be working on and the type of work that we wanted them to do."
Basically, he did the work of ten people: He wrote grants and managed volunteers to stretch the Forest Service’s resources. Because of the hiring freeze, Schramm can’t replace him, and she’s worried about the money for his salary going to fight forest fires if the position’s still vacant come June.
"With that position being vacant right now, we pretty much have a skeleton crew. Our folks are going to be stretched really thin," Schramm said.
Back in the Middle Fork, Mark Boyer showed me an already-paved stretch of road. It leads to a nine-mile hike up Mailbox Peak.
"Fifteen years ago, when I used to go up there, the trailhead was marked by a toothbrush. And now on a weekend--any nice weekend, the trailhead is packed, and cars line the road sometimes a quarter mile up the road," Boyer said.
Boyer says the Middle Fork is already changing--and the most important thing now is to get ready.
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