Contrary to the sign, trailwork is not in progress on US Federal lands due to the government shutdown.
The United States government has currently been partially shutdown for just over a month. At 32 days and counting, all non-essential government personnel are essentially placed on leave, and those who are essential are working without being paid.
The shutdown occurred when an agreement couldn't be reached over President Trump's proposed 5.7 billion dollar wall on the border of the US and Mexico. Political beliefs and arguments aside, the shutdown is now the longest in United States history and is directly causing hardships for thousands of people. What's in it for the trails?
What does this mean for us, as mountain bikers? At first, it just seems that on Federal lands, some campgrounds and roads may be closed and there won't be quite as many rangers around, but there's more to it than that. For professional trail builders and volunteers alike things are on hold until an agreement is reached in Washington.
I reached out to Mike Thomas, owner of Terra Tek Trails, a trail building, consulting, and design company based in Boone, NC, to see how the shutdown was impacting him and other trailbuilders. Thomas not only builds mountain bike trails but hiking and multi-use trails. He has over a decade of experience in working with the US Forest Service on various projects.
Mike said, "The shutdown is impacting me a lot. I haven't been able to get work that I have done for the USFS inspected, and design jobs I have lined up are now on hold with the Forest Service until the shutdown ends. Some invoices are still being processed, and I'm getting paid for now on work I've completed, so that's good, and I'm staying busy otherwise."
I asked how much work this was leaving on the table for trailbuilders in the area. Thomas replied, "It's hard to say... If the shutdown wasn’t happening, we would have more jobs to bid on and everything is just backing up now. We’ve been waiting on another round of bids to come out from the Forest Service for a while now."
While some trail problems are easily solved, larger scale trail troubles such as washouts and major storm downfall take major volunteer efforts or professional trail crews.
"It's also holding up future trail work because we have multiple trail flaglines on the ground waiting for NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) studies to be completed, and those trails can’t come out to bid until that has been done. I personally have one major project that's been years in the making in this situation in Western North Carolina. For NEPA, the proposed flag lines must be checked off by all of the "ologists" - biologists, archeologists, etc. and none of that happens with the government shutdown."
"With the work getting further and further behind, the impacts are compounding. It's going to have some long lasting impacts for trail systems and trail users on Federal lands, especially mountain bikers, just in adding to what was already a huge backlog of work that needed to be done to keep trails open and rideable."No Volunteers Allowed
While it may be no big deal that new trails aren't being built to some, volunteer groups aren't able to work in any official capacity either. Organized work days on USFS and other government property are on hold.
Matthew Leach, President of Pisgah Area SORBA - the group responsible for volunteer trail maintenance and more in Pisgah National Forest near Asheville, NC said, "In response to the government shutdown, all user groups working with the Pisgah Ranger District have been asked to not conduct any volunteer work within the forest until the shutdown is ended. This is in support of the Sponsored Volunteer Agreement each user group has with the Pisgah Ranger District. If a volunteer were to be injured working in the forest during the shutdown worker compensation will not be available. Additionally, western North Carolina has been hit hard with snow, ice, and heavy rain which has left the trail systems littered with limbs and storm debris. This debris will remain in place until the shutdown is over and the Pisgah Ranger District and its user groups can begin the lengthy cleanup."
This is just one example of what is happening across the country on federal lands in regards to trail systems.
What does all of that mean for us as riders? Well, trails don't build and maintain themselves, and if the government shutdown continues, trail shutdowns on Federal lands could follow suit. Historically, the government's quickest way to fix a damaged trail when there's no money to be had or it's beyond reasonable repair is to simply shut it down, sending it back to nature.