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Kurt Nelson is a district ranger on the Sawtooth national forest. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2011 by Bruce Reichert.
How did the wild fire of 2007 lead to even more amazing trails in the Ketchum-Sun Valley area?
So it was kind of an education process of trying to develop an awareness of the role of fire in ecosystems and saying, "hey this will be fine in a year. After a growing season you'll start to see willows sprouting, aspens, young vegetation coming in." We inventoried all of our trails within the burn area. I think there were around 85 miles of trails that were impacted, and then we came up with a plan for restoration – not just trails but where we needed to put some type of soil protection on these fragile watersheds to try to keep the soils from sliding into the creeks.
"The Forest Service is an evolving agency, and its mission is to protect resources, to save them for future generations. As society evolves . . . agencies have to step up and try to meet those needs."
So the first year we spent quite a bit of money and we had crews – prison crews and we had the northwest youth corps which has been very active over the last four years on trail restoration, rebuilding and realignment. We were able to get some funding through grants and then also through our post fire restoration funds to where we rebuilt in this drainage. Eve's Gulch trail which was about three miles, was a complete rebuild. We built another 17 miles in Red Warrior and Warfield over the last two years; and then we have spent a fair amount of money in realigning trails throughout the burn areas where water is moving soil and causing trail damage. So that has been an ongoing process for the last four years.
What has been the reaction?
Yeah, we had a super response from the community. We have a very strong trails community of all different user groups here. There was the Big Wood Backcountry Trails, which is still in existence, and a newly-formed group called the Wood River Bike Coalition, so all these folks are interacting. They respect one another, and they want to see their trails maintained with lots of volunteer time, lots of active involvement. And my phone is readily accessible to people in the community, and they let me know what they think.
Some people may be surprised that the Forest Service has spent so much energy on trails. How does this square with the mission of the Forest Service?
The focus is still on the protection of the natural resources, but as society changes, our needs, wants and desires from public lands change; and so what we're seeing is a huge developing growth in the recreation area; and part of that here in the Wood River Valley is expressed with great mountain biking trails, great hiking trails, great trails for horseback riding. That seems to be the niche for this particular area.
I think the Forest Service of maybe the '70s and '80s has changed dramatically, and so the leadership of the Forest Service recognizes these changes are needed and necessary. It's how do we get there, and how do we develop partnerships and bring communities along with what our mission is? That's how I see it over my years.
Partnerships have been integral. Partnerships are huge anymore in whatever we do, especially in recreation, but also in watershed restoration, all across the board. It's how do we work together to come to some common goals, common desires for outcomes, and then look at each other and see who's got the resources to make it happen.
"Each community or area is a little different, and that's the beauty of the Forest Service; it is a diverse agency, and it's not top-down in terms of how we approach issues on the ground."
Obviously the Forest Service does not have an unlimited budget, and so we look to our partners with the state, Idaho Parks and Recreation grants for trail programs, we look to matching from private and other non-profits.
Each community or area is a little different, and that's the beauty of the Forest Service; it is a diverse agency, and it's not top-down in terms of how we approach issues on the ground; and that's where collaboration here may mean trails, the winter sport scene, a lot of those recreation activities. In some other parts of Idaho, it may be, how do we do stewardship on forests and have stewardship projects where we harvest wood and maintain communities intact in those areas.
What about those mountain bike trails called flow trails? Isn't that a bit extreme for the Forest Service?
Concurrently, the Bureau of Land Management in the south part of the valley was interested in building flow trails on their area, so we actually used the crew that was working on BLM and brought them up to work with us to work on this flow trail here. And based upon the people who are using it, they think it's a fabulous asset to the trail system.
How do you define a flow trail?
Did you get any pushback?
So you build these, and maybe kids won't bother the forest in other places?
A tricky question, but do you ever see the state managing some of these federally controlled public lands?
So we entered into a collaborative working relationship with the state of Idaho and their forestry division to work with local individual land owners to provide pheromones to individuals to protect their trees and work on adjacent state lands. Those are ongoing activities, and sometimes we kind of overlook those, and if there was an opportunity from a stewardship standpoint to develop a timber sale for thinning from below or some type of a silvaculture treatment, I don't see why it wouldn't happen under existing federal ownership.