Mark Stange’s idea of a vacation is to clear brush and downed trees on the 41-mile Kekekabic Trail, which snakes through the northern Minnesota wilderness from Ely to the Gunflint Trail.
“Getting out and working on the trail is very satisfying,” said Stange, 70, of Shoreview, who has volunteered on the trail for more than 20 years. “You get to spend time in the wilderness and be productive. It’s a twofer.”
Volunteers like Stange are essential: Many Minnesota trails wouldn’t exist without them.
The “Kek” is among nearly 600 miles of hiking trails and 800 miles of snowmobile trails in the Superior National Forest. Another 300 miles of hiking trails and 300 miles of snowmobile trails are in the Chippewa National Forest, the state’s other national forest.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have the money or manpower to maintain all of those miles.
The problem is much bigger nationally: Only a quarter of the National Forest system’s 157,000 miles of trails are up to Forest Service standards, and the agency has a $314 million backlog of trail maintenance.
Now a new law signed last month by President Obama aims to address those trail needs by enlisting more volunteers like Stange. The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act passed Congress with bipartisan support — a rarity these days.
The legislation requires the Forest Service to develop a strategy to dramatically increase the use of volunteers to maintain trails in five years. Supporters, including trail, hunting, conservation and even political groups, are hoping it also will increase people’s connection to the resource.
In addition, the agency will be required to identify regions with the most severe trail maintenance needs — where backlogs are jeopardizing access — and make them a priority.
It also directs the Forest Service to consider using fire crews in trail maintenance as long as that doesn’t jeopardize firefighting capabilities, public safety or resource protection.
“The Forest Service is just overwhelmed and cannot maintain their trails,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a hiking enthusiast who co-authored the legislation in the U.S. House with Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.
The proposal likely got bipartisan support because it didn’t include any money for the agency to boost volunteer efforts.
“I think we have to be creative in this political and fiscal environment,” Walz said. “If you just ask for more money for trail maintenance, you’re not going to get it passed.”
Minnesota is ahead of the curve. Volunteers already play key roles in the maintenance of many Minnesota trails. About 300 volunteers contributed 40,000 hours in Superior National Forest alone last year, said Kris Reichenbach, spokesperson for Superior National Forest. Of the work, 60 percent was on trails.
“We have a really strong history of working with volunteers here,” she said. “Volunteer organizations contributed huge amounts of time and help us accomplish things we couldn’t otherwise do. If there’s an opportunity with the act to do even more, we’re very, very glad and will take advantage of that.”
Added Reichenbach: “There’s definitely more work that could be done. Between budgets and staffing, it’s a challenge for us to do everything.”
Walz said Minnesota’s success with volunteers was an inspiration for the national effort. Though volunteers already play a key role in Minnesota, many more are needed, trail leaders say.
Stange is president of the Kekekabic Trail Chapter of the North Country Trail Association, which has been maintaining the Kek hiking trail for 25 years.
“The only way to keep hiking trails open is by volunteer workers,” he said. Volunteers receive training from the Forest Service, and the federal agency supplies canoes and tools. The volunteers provide their own camping gear and food. And sweat. The maintenance usually is done in spring “before tourists and the bugs come,” Stange said.
“Typically winter storms blow down trees and block trails,” said Stange. “You have to keep at it (maintenance), otherwise in 10 years you pretty much lose a trail.”
But the number of volunteers on the Kekekabic Trail has dwindled to fewer than a dozen, Stange said.
“We could use lots more,” he said.
He and others hope the Trails Stewardship Act will boost numbers.
Other Minnesota hiking trails that rely on volunteers include the 65-mile Border Route Trail, which bisects the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and the 326-mile Superior Hiking Trail along the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Volunteers also groom 21,000 of the 22,000 miles of Minnesota snowmobile trails.
Volunteers built and maintain the Border Route Trail, said John Elliot, president of the Border Route Trail Association.
“We have maybe 40 or 50 people on any given year,” he said. Elliot, 70, of Edina, has been a trail maintenance volunteer since 1979.
But the number of volunteers with his group are down, too. “The younger people nowadays aren’t so much into the outdoors; they are playing with their phones instead,” he said.
Matt Davis, 41, of Detroit Lakes, agreed. He is the regional trail coordinator with the North Country Trail Association. Davis said the average age of hiking trail volunteers is 55 and older.
“It’s the baby boomer generation,” he said. “It will be tough when they can no longer do the work. It’s definitely a concern,” he said.”
Meanwhile, Elliot said working on the Border Route Trail is fun and satisfying. “I don’t backpack, I only hike with a purpose, such as trail-clearing,” he said.
But he enjoys the Border Route Trail’s spectacular scenery.
“It has beautiful overlooks, lots of rock outcropping. It’s one of the top scenic trails in the U.S.”
And he plans to keep it that way.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer. Reach him at email@example.com.