Upper Silvis, Lake Mahoney, on the Tongass National Forest. Photo courtesy: USFS / Christy Bullard
TONGASS SUSTAINABLE TRAILS STRATEGY
Over the course of 2021, the U.S. Forest Service will work with community partners to craft a Sustainable Trails Strategy for the Tongass National Forest. This project will set shared priorities and create partnerships needed for an improved, more sustainable set of trails in the Tongass. The project will be led by Alaska Trails under a USFS Challenge Cost Share agreement. The process and products of this project will be based on Alaska Trails’ Statewide Trails Investment Strategy released in spring 2020. This process offers an exciting opportunity for communities in Southeast Alaska to share their priorities for trails and recreation with the Forest Service.
STARTING POINT: NATIONAL USFS POLICY
This Tongass Sustainable Trails Strategy project builds from two national Forest Service policy documents: “National Strategy for a Sustainable Trail System” and the related “10-Year Trail Challenge – 2020 to 2030”.
“Sustainability is achieved at the junction where trails are socially relevant and supported, ecologically resilient, and economically viable.”
- from the National Strategy
Together with partners, volunteers, and friends, the Forest Service manages more than 158,000 miles of nonmotorized and motorized trails. National Forest System trails also connect with many miles of trails managed by local, state, federal, and tribal governments and by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Drawing from these valued partner resources now and into the future, the Forest Service will increasingly embrace a shared-stewardship approach in providing and managing a sustainable system of trails.
- Key extract from the National Strategy (emphasis added)
PROJECT PROCESS & OUTCOMES
The Tongass includes over 700 miles of trails, spread across 17 million acres, within nine Ranger Districts. This project will develop strategies to support this valuable trail system, and to expand and better sustain the economic, social, and resource protection benefits that trails provide.
The process for crafting the Tongass Sustainable Trails Strategy Report (to be completed by December 2021) will include:
Completing an overview of the context for sustainable trail management, including changes in the character, location and magnitude of trail use in the Tongass, and current options and constraints on the Forest Service’s ability, on its own, to respond to these changes.
Developing sustainable trail strategies specific to individual Ranger Districts/communities, identifying trail locations and designs that can best benefit communities and businesses, protect resources, and address deferred maintenance, presenting recommendations for specific trails to improve, construct or decommission.
Identifying sustainable trail themes that are applicable Forest-wide, for example, options for the use of logging roads or for on-shore hiking for small cruise ships.
Building a framework for partnerships – arrangements between the USFS, communities, trail users, businesses, Alaska Native organizations and other parties to share in the planning, funding, maintenance of trails going forward.
While this Sustainable Trails Strategy will not produce binding, site-specific USFS labor and investment decisions, it will guide the USFS as it makes those decisions in the future.
While Alaska Trails would like to work with every community in Southeast Alaska, the schedule and budget of the Sustainable Trails Strategy only allows for subset of communities and Ranger Districts to be considered at this time. The tentative list of selected locations includes Sitka, Hoonah, the Petersburg Ranger District with a focus on Kake, Prince of Wales Island, Admiralty and Juneau. Criteria used to identify these communities included:
Ensuring the communities selected collectively provide a diverse representation of locations
Magnitude and urgency of the need for trail improvements and/or decommissioning
Comparative magnitude of benefits resulting from trail projects
Level of support and capacity of key stakeholders and USFS staff
As the National Strategy explains, the USFS is no longer able, on its own, to support the current magnitude and diversity of trails. Going forward, the USFS will increasingly look to partners to share the work to prioritize, maintain and manage trails, and in some cases build new or decommission existing trails. The overall goal is to produce a set of sustainable trails – trails that are environmentally appropriate, have reduced ongoing maintenance costs, and deliver important economic and social benefits.
Alaska Trails and Tongass National Forest District Ranger Staff will work with the public, communities, businesses, tribes, local governments, and State and Federal agencies to proactively plan for sustainable trail systems that connect people to the land in Southeast Alaska. Members of these groups will have the opportunity to provide input and offer their expertise as the Sustainable Trails Strategy is crafted. To be involved with this project contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
TONGASS TRAIL PRIORITIES: PRELIMINARY INVENTORY BY DISTRICT
The reconnaissance trails data assembly was the first step in the Tongass Sustainable Trails Strategy, completed in January 2021. This is a compilation of existing and planned USFS trails and initial assessments of value of these trails to stakeholders. For this initial task we have assembled information in these categories:
Existing USFS data on trail characteristics such as locations, type of trail, length of trail
Recent USFS trail sustainability evaluations such as Rapid Trails Assessment Tool (RTAT)
Existing USFS data on amount of commercial use of trails (Special Uses USFS database)
Preliminary assessments of trails’ value to communities, independent visitors, and tour operators (qualitative estimates based on ranger district staff’s institutional knowledge)
Initial data on current and planned Forest Service’s work on its trails – indications of trail ”shovel readiness”, including status of work on physical design and environmental review
For more details on this preliminary data assembly see Chapter 3 of the Tongass Sustainable Trails Strategy Initial Report.