By Bob Walker

The public land access that we enjoy now isn’t an accident.  The generations that preceded us took care to preserve our public lands and build the trails that we depend on, and it’s now up to us to do the same.  As pressure on Montana’s public land infrastructure increases, it is essential that we invest in our trails to preserve our way of life.

More than ever, our trails allow more Montanans to make a living in the place we call home.  Whether it’s a well-groomed snowmobile track, a rocky pack-and-saddle route, or an artfully banked mountain bike path, people will pay to get to the trailhead and beyond.  Over the last five years, outdoor recreation spending in Montana has increased 22 percent, from $5.8 billion in 2013 to $7.1 billion today.  That spending generates $2.2 billion in wages and 71,000 jobs (Outdoor Industry Association).

There’s no question that trails are immensely important to Montanans.  For example, a study conducted by the University Montana found that among visitors to Montana state parks, roughly

89% identified trails as the single most important amenity provided by the park. 

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, 81% of Montanans participate in outdoor recreation each year!

Created by Congress in 1991, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) directs federal funding to states to build and maintain trails for hiking, off-road motorcycling, bicycling, equestrian, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, all-terrain vehicle, and four-wheel drive use.  Since 2014, RTP provided nearly $8 million in Montana for grants to cities, counties, private trails clubs, state and federal agencies for trail development, rehabilitation and maintenance.  When we add to that figure the amount of local funds and the value of volunteer labor invested in those funded projects, the total benefit is approximately $24 million!  We thank congress for approving this valuable program to Montana and other states!

In Montana, RTP is managed by Fish, Wildlife, and Parks with input and recommendations from a citizen’s State Trails Advisory Committee.  Funding is dispersed equitably to motorized (30%), non-motorized (30%) and diversified projects that require more than one type of trail use (40%).

Now The Crisis: In Montana, the funding for our public land trails isn’t keeping up with the growing demand.  Since 2014, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) has funded 267 motorized, non-motorized, and diverse trail projects but due to the shortage of funds, it has left 128 projects unfunded, leaving millions of dollars in trails projects unfunded as the demand for public trails continues to grow.

As demand for trails continues to grow, it’s essential that the funding available to build and maintain them increases as well.  While the RTP program has been a success, the amount of grant money awarded over the past five years has remained virtually stagnant.  Maximizing the returns on the RTP program is important, but funding from the program alone will not match the growing demand for trails on our public lands.

Many states have already established a state program to build and maintain trails, yet few states stand to gain more than Montana from such a program.  A Made-In-Montana trail program could cut federal red tape and allow applications to be prepared and processed more efficiently by Fish, Wildlife & Parks.  A made-in-Montana trail program could exercise greater flexibility in project funding.  Right now, decision makers on RTP grants are bound by the strict 30/30/40 split between motorized, non-motorized, and diversified projects.  So, even if there are enough strong motorized projects to justify spending 35% of funding pool, decision makers still have to observe the arbitrary 30% limit.  Here in Montana, our State Trails Advisory Committee could score projects on their merits instead of penalizing good projects based on a federally imposed formula.

Note from the writer: In 2017 the Outdoor Industry Association studied the array of mechanism used by states to fund outdoor recreation.  At least 13 Montana statewide and regional trails organizations, including the Montana Trails Vehicle Riders Association, studied these alternatives.  Many would require substantial state law changes, but a few are under further study.  They include an increase in the optional light motor vehicle registration fee for state parks and to include trails, an increase in the state bed tax, an increase in the refund of state gas taxes to the OHV and snowmobile programs, and a user pays permit system.  As time allows, more information will surface about these potential funding mechanisms.

o to Montana Trails Coalition at www.montanatrailscoalition.org for the complete MONTANA TRAILS IN CRISIS Report.

In Montana, the funding for our public land trails isn’t keeping up with the growing demand. Since 2014, the Recreational Trails Program (RTP) has generated over $24 million for 267 motorized, non-motorized, and diverse (motorized and non-motorized) trail projects that preserve Montana’s legacy of accessible public lands for hunting, hiking, motorized use, and biking. Even so, it has left 128 projects unfunded, leaving millions of dollars on the table1 as the demand for public trails continues to grow.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

The public land access that we enjoy now isn’t an accident. The generations that preceded us took care to preserve our public lands and build the trails that we depend on, and it’s now up to us to do the same. As pressure on Montana’s public land infrastructure increases, it is essential that we invest in our trails to preserve our way of life.

  • Grants Requested: 395
  • Grants Awarded: 267 (67.59%)
  • Grants Unfunded: 128 (32.41%)
  • Total Grant Dollars Awarded: $7,994,441
  • Total Matching Amount (in-kind and monetary): $16,566,658
  • Average Match Value as a Percentage of Grant: 200%
  • Total Impact: $24,561,099
  • Gap Between Grant Money Requested and Awarded: $6,830,816
  • Total Value of Unfunded Grants: $4,623,210
  • Potential Value of Unfunded Applications: $13,800,0002
  • Counties Applied for Grants: 34 of 56 (60.7%)
  • Counties Awarded Grants: 19 of 56 (33.9%)

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