Conservation Currents | Underfunded: Why Our Public Lands Need Your Help

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we discuss the chronic underfunding our public lands face - and what you can do to help.
Katherine Hollis Katherine Hollis
May 22, 2020

One sunny summer weekend in 2019, Becca Polglase was driving with three friends to the Dingford Creek Trailhead for a brisk day hike. As they wove through the forest, the conversation flitted between adventure goals and gear, eventually landing on the topic of public lands. Her friends lamented closures, access limitations, and much-needed maintenance. “You know”, Becca said, “permits are confusing, roads are bad, and trailheads aren’t being serviced because of a lack of funding.”

Her adventure buddies obliging her, Becca (who works as The Mountaineers Programs & Operations Director) went on to explain why people with a passion for the outdoors need to take action. Organizations like The Mountaineers, Outdoor Alliance, and many others dedicate resources to understanding and communicating key issues with the outdoor recreation community and, even though budgets can be confusing and detailed, protecting public lands includes funding them. That’s why we must engage elected officials and land managers on these issues. As Becca put it, “If you care about the outdoors, when The Mountaineers posts an Action Alert for a funding issue, you need to take action!”

When they arrived at the trailhead, the group was greeted by a sign on the pit toilet from the U.S. Forest Service stating an indefinite facilities closure due to lack of funding. While not the ideal situation to be in after a long drive, it was a perfect example of what Becca had shared in the car: though unglamorous, funding public lands is a key part of protecting and accessing the places we love. 

A chronic issue

If this story sounds relatable, it’s because it is. Nationally, the Park Service has $12 billion in deferred maintenance backlogs, and the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management also face significant funding issues. Here in Washington, our state Department of Natural Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and State Parks all face operational funding issues. Budget cuts force land management agencies to lay off rangers, resource specialists, and many other stewards of our public lands. Work in climate science research and environmental standards also suffer.

We have seen that when our land management agencies are short-staffed and under-resourced, they scramble to bridge funding gaps with proposals like entrance fee increases and broader and longer closures. Such measures threaten access for everyone, particularly those with limited funds.  

What we do (and how you can help)

Protecting public lands is a core part of who we are as Mountaineers. We work to build and maintain strong relationships with legislators and land managers, bridging the gap between them and sharing land managers’ perspectives and challenges with those who shape policy. We advocate for funding in budget processes at both a state and national level. We advocate for legislation that will help address these issues, and work to educate outdoor enthusiasts on funding issues. When possible, we provide easy ways to take actions on a funding process or piece of legislation. And most importantly, we encourage everyone to be passionate, be informed, and be a voice for the outdoors.

While budget issues can be convoluted and at times challenging to understand, they are no less important than saving a beloved place from industrial-scale mining or keeping a climbing area open to responsible use. Funding allows us to know the rivers, trees, trails, snow, and wildlife that call our wild places home. It’s up to us to speak up for these issues to ensure public lands, and the experiences they provide, are stewarded now and into the future. Thank you for joining us as we work to preserve the places we love - and don’t forget to pester your friends on the way to the trailhead so that they can be part of the solution, too. 

What does underfunding look like in Washington? 

 Underfunding state lands is a chronic national issue, and Washington is no exception. See just a few of the impacts below:

  • The Milk Creek Bridge over the Suiattle River washed out more than a decade ago. This is a major access route to the Pacific Crest Trail and a section of the classic 30-mile Dolly Vista Loop.
  • Along the I-90 corridor, facilities at Dingford Creek Trailhead, Denny Creek Trailhead, and Asahel Curtis Picnic area (all U.S. Forest Service lands) have all been closed due to maintenance issues.
  • The Icicle Creek and Colchuck/Stuart trailhead areas have minimal infrastructures that are severely underequipped to handle the current demands upon them, stemming from the area’s popularity as a climbing destination. Volunteers and local nonprofits are ready and able to help, but the Forest Service is unable to provide the employees needed to partner on this work.
  • Fall’s View Campground closed many years ago because the Forest Service did not have sufficient funding to clean sites and provide general maintenance. Since that time trees developed root rot and the site has remained closed due to possible safety hazards. Funding to restore the area is required before it can be reopened.
  • The Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, the second most-visited location in Olympic National Park, is only open Friday through Sunday in shoulder seasons and closed completely in January and February, despite demand for greater availability.
  • Mt. Rainier National Park has over $186 million in deferred maintenance costs. A priority is improving the Paradise trail system, to make hiking (and access to climbing Rainier) easier, while improving the protection of fragile alpine meadows. The park’s sewage system is also in need of a significant overhaul to address aging and increased use.
  • Vantage, or Frenchman’s Coulee, is a highly popular climbing destination managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DWF), and heavily used in shoulder seasons when it’s too wet and cold to climb in other areas. Human waste has been a major issue over the last decade, and as DWF has faced budget concerns, the climbing community funded the installation of two pit toilets. Unfortunately, DWF does not have the funds to have these toilets regularly serviced.

Learn more about how you can speak up for your public lands at mountaineers.org/conservation/advocacy

Main Image of Emerald Peak, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo by Luke Helgeson.


This article originally appeared in our Spring 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.