Why California’s Trails Are Disappearing From Our Maps

The Sierra Once Provided Refuge for the Central Valley; Now, Access to These Forests Is Being Threatened

One of the great things about living in California’s Central Valley is the easy access to one of the great mountain ranges of the world, the Sierra Nevada, and its beautiful forests. Unfortunately, through no fault of anyone in the valley, that access is being threatened.

As a lifelong Californian, I’ve grown to love the mountains so much that I’ve done volunteer work in the forests of the Sierra for the past 15 years. And over that time, I’ve seen a dramatic shift in the condition of the forests. The problems are twofold: a lack of funding and a lack of personnel.

The problem is particularly acute in the Sequoia National Forest, most easily accessed from Bakersfield or Porterville. It has no forest rangers. Let me be very clear: I do not use the word “ranger” like others, who count anyone wearing a Forest Service uniform as a ranger. What I am talking about is the absence of the traditional “ranger-naturalist” who spends his or her time tromping the trails.

These are the rangers who interact with people in the backcountry, protect our resources on the ground, maintain the structures related to trails, check permits, and help people in trouble. Interacting with such folks remains a very fond memory of my youth, and it was part of what brings me back to the mountains.

Such people are gone now. Yes, you will find a few rangers who work in the information booths and offices, where the cars park, but there is no one away from the roads. This has translated into a slow but steady degradation of the forest, and the rise of destructive visitor behavior, such as graffiti on trees or the creation of fires when conditions are dangerous.

It’s not just the rangers who are gone. The professional trail maintainers have disappeared, too. Not so long ago, teams of such people maintained trails, using only “primitive” tools like shovels and handsaws. Skills with such tools are crucial because one rule of working in Forest Service wilderness is that any kind of engine or wheeled device is prohibited. Trails can’t be maintained with chainsaws or wheelbarrows.

Why are all these skilled people gone? It’s money, of course. The Forest Service budget to the Sierra forests has been cut on an almost an annual basis, with frontline workers bearing the brunt of the cuts.

Who fills the gap? Volunteers like me. Today, all the trail maintenance done in the Sequoia National Forest is performed by a half-dozen volunteer groups, members of which spend their own time and money to get special training, buy their own tools, drive up to the forest, and work hard for days or even weeks. For example, my group, the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, has restored many trails that had been left to deteriorate.

Such work has to be done. Trails are artificial things. Water washes them out, trees fall on them, and rocks crash onto them. If these problems are not fixed, trails become impassible in just a few years.

Most trails require work every year, or they deteriorate. But such maintenance doesn’t always happen. Two years ago, I led a crew to repair a portion of the remote Pacific Crest Trail, which had gotten no attention in almost a decade. This is one of our great national scenic trails, yet it took my crew of 15 two hours to find it. It was so terribly overgrown that it took 30 days of work over a three-year span to clear just a few miles of trail.

This sort of thing is not just a labor of love but also a labor of public health. Trails need maintenance not only because people wish to travel in the wilderness, but also because poorly maintained trails erode the watershed, diminishing the quality of water in Central Valley cities.

Volunteers, of course, can do only a small part of this work. At least that has been the standard thinking. But now, there are only volunteers. With no one else chipping in, we don’t merely lose access to trails. We lose trails altogether.

The trails are organized into a system, and “system trails” are required, by law, to be maintained. But when trails can’t be maintained, as is the case now, the government complies with the law by “decommissioning” poorly maintained trails from the trail system. And decommissioned trails literally disappear from maps. One of the best mapmakers for the Sierra, Tom Harrison, tells me that Forest Service personnel regularly instruct him to remove trails from his maps. Eventually, no one knows the trail was ever there.

This trend represents the ongoing loss of national resources—our trails and the access they provide. And these losses seem to be happening without public awareness or debate. Yes, there are some people who believe that wilderness areas are better off without trails or the ability of people to access them; they want the land kept pure and believe that the harder it is to get into the forests, the better. They hold as their scripture the 1964 Federal Wilderness Act, which designates areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”

I read the Wilderness Act differently, since it also speaks of wilderness lands being preserved “for the people,” as places where “man himself is a visitor.” Access to our public lands is a right of all Americans, and the huge system of public lands is something that distinguishes America from most of the world’s other countries. It also makes the Central Valley a special place to live. With the decline of forests and trails, we are losing a part of California—and part of our American selves.

  • Chris W.

    First we are talking tightly regulated wilderness area’s only when saying that no motorized equipment can be used. That is a fault of the management policy and they would get more help if they made exceptions for work groups. No one wants to spend all day on one log when the job could be done in 15 minutes. Secondly even in wilderness area’s visitors want some improvements. The present hands off policy means exactly as you mention everything is going back to nature and any “improvement” requires environmental impact reports, public comment, and judicial review because nobody is happy with the plan and quite frankly “we the people” are sick and tired of all the red tape.

    Agreeably funding is the primary issue forest managers face and with federal cut backs in spending you can thank the social politicians for choosing to keep their pet projects that get votes rather than preserve forests. Environmentalism is no longer a pet political issue as it was in the 1960’s instead the global warmists and their goal of setting up an economy of carbon credits is. This however could eventually direct funding back into our beloved wild lands but that is still decades out from political haggling.
    So we seek the volunteer in the mean while and Sir we greatly thank you for your contribution!

    • AWildernessVolunteer

      No one I know has ever spent an entire day removing a tree with traditional tools.
      The argument for special consideration to use motorized tools in Wilderness is a red herring. The issue is not getting more trees cut in less time it is getting more volunteers out there to begin with. The amount of time a Volunteer organization spends recruiting, training and traveling to the trail obstruction far outweighs the difference in work time between using a crosscut saw vs a chainsaw.
      The trail crew I work on takes it as a point of pride that we remove hundreds of trees from the trail system each season without shattering the calm of the Wilderness. Many of the trees are 4′ or larger in diameter.

      What’s missing is a commitment to giving back by everyone that benefits from the existence of the trails. If every hiker put in a few hours each year the maintenance backlog would be greatly reduced without ever having to disturb the peace and tranquility with a motor.

      • Chris W.

        The use of power tools is divided by an arbitrary border one
        side being wilderness and no power allowed, go 2 ft over and power is allowed
        yet the same noise is heard as much as 20 miles away so the idea that noise in
        the wilderness is an issue just doesn’t pass water here. Additionally aircraft
        and highways echoing, hunters gun fire, dogs and wildlife etc. noise levels
        vary with each day. Yes the goal is to provide the optimum experience for the
        users of the land with peace and solitude so talked about in so many tales. But
        when time constraints, budget cuts and the lack of staff and volunteers effects
        use than it is time to choose to be flexible and get er done. There are
        sections of the Angeles National forest burned in a fire 15-20 years ago that
        have yet seen even a volunteer group go in and repair access to it and it is
        not even in a wilderness area. Present policy is to keep the area closed until
        that day comes. I was told that the popularity of a trail or recreation area is
        what gets priority and again this is an arbitrary decision. The squeaky wheel
        gets the grease. I was raised with this philosophy, “Blessed are those who
        are flexible in spirit” If you cannot be a solution to the problem you are
        the problem and you need to step out of the way so that those who can will get
        er done.

        • AWildernessVolunteer

          There _is_ flexibility written into the Wilderness Act of 1964 but only when alternatives have been considered and there is no other means to achieve the desired result.
          I think the 700 hours I spent volunteering in Wilderness in the past year put me pretty near the head of the pack of those people who are getting it done so that everyone can have access.

      • Robert Parks

        And barring unusual events (like Arborgeddon), the number of trees down is well within the time and abilities of volunteers…because “logging” is the easiest and most rewarding wilderness trailwork. The really hard work is building and rebuilding washed out/damaged/poorly built trails…and rock work and treadwork is mostly handwork. In wetter and more hospitable climes, brushing is the prevalent work…and while you can clear brush with a chainsaw (and then redo it every year as it sprouts back), unless you want to use herbicide on the entire trail corridor, doing it right requires the skills, techniques, and back breaking labor of rooting out the brush-root and stem.

        Personally, I don’t have any interest in doing trailwork using and surrounded by earsplitting mechanisms and motors. Separating myself from Nature rather than working with to achieve lasting results.

        ps: The Minimum Tool permitted chainsaw work for Arborgeddon was mostly sloppy and poorly executed, while the (greater amount of work) crosscut work was carefully and thoughtfully done (Do It Right Once!). Indeed, in several areas crosscut crews cleaned up the work that chainsaw crews failed to do to a reasonable standard.

    • Bones

      “No motorized equipment” is not the whim of the local managers of Federally Designated Wilderness; it’s the historical interpretation of the 1964 Wilderness Act and has always been applied to FDW. And there has never been any such thing as ‘design improvements’ to FDW, the act’s intent is to allow land to remain without inclusion of facilities, developed trail camps or new structures.
      On occasion, such as when crews cleared the historically unprecedented 2011 blowdown of thousands of big trees in Red’s Meadow Valley, the feds will grant special permits to operate power equipment to clear trails in a timely manner.
      As a volunteer leader of PCT trail projects in non-wilderness, our crews use power equipment to cut blowdowns and brush. In FDW, traditional tools are slower but still do the job well. Enormous trees can be cut effectively using crosscut hand saws.
      The loss of historical trails is lamentable. Given the shrinking budgets for federal land managers and that most wilderness trail work is now performed by volunteers, what safe maintained trails really can use is better volunteer support from trail users.

  • Eric Hamilton

    I joined the HSVTC in the early 2000’s, became a crew leader and served as a general use worker for several years. I am/was a certified chain saw and crosscut saw sawyer. Ken and I got our certifications together.

    The rules about the wilderness (originally called primitive) areas specify that no powered items be allowed in them. The result is that the Forest areas that are covered by these rules are, almost always, quiet.

    I first ran into these rules in 1958, when I was hiking the old “Oregon Crest Skyline Trail” and we were following a motorcycle that had chains on its tires. It really messed up the trail.

    When we have sharp tools, it takes a surprisingly short tie to remove a tree from across a trail. With a crew size of 6 or more, only 2 may use a crosscut saw at the same time, which means that the others get to listen to the “wild”, take a break, etc.

    Being certified with both types of saw, I always prefer the crosscut saw. When we get the rarely given special permission to use chain saws, it always involves hauling a bunch of gas and oil that is heavy and always causes problems. When we are allowed to use chain saws, it is because the trail probably not been maintained for many years.

    On one trip one of our volunteers had an accident and badly broke her elbow. At that time it was a “no fly day” and she had to walk out several miles. There is nothing unusual about no fly days, the Forest Service is very consistent about keeping no mechanical equipment out of the wilderness areas.

    In general if you can hear “civilization”, then you are not very deep in a wilderness area.

    The trails need a lot of continuous work. I am now over 70, and primarily maintain tools for the HSVTC.

  • Sarah

    I would disagree that trails are being degraded through no fault of anyone in the valley. I grew up in the Central Valley and watched it get steadily more conservative in the 1980s and ’90s. Plenty of people in the Valley are voting for reduced government funding of wilderness area and against environmental protections. This is the result.

  • RosvitaRauch

    Thank you for the article. I do wish it would have provided a direct link to relevant volunteer organizations as hopefully many people will be motivated, as I was, to get involved. (Though based in Los Angeles, I can’t imagine the situation is much different in the National Forests and Parks closer to me.) A link to the High
    Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew is available here:

    In this day and age when we’re often being asked to give funds, it’s actually great to have a call to action that one can respond to “locally”, as well. And if it gets us out into our National parks, well, then, even better.

  • anon9876a

    Forty years of limiting access to trails via tiny trail quotas has not
    helped keep wilderness areas in the minds of the people. If people
    cannot use the trails that are there, they turn to other modes of
    recreation. After a generation, few are left who even care about seeing
    the deep reaches our national forests and parks. It is no wonder funding is continually reduced.

    • AWildernessVolunteer

      It is always a delicate balancing act of encouraging people to get out and enjoy the wilderness while limiting the impact those visitors will have. Something to note is that the vast majority of the 757 designated wilderness areas do not have a permit or visitor limiting system in place.
      Go out and enjoy the peace and solitude.

  • My dad sent me a clipping of this article from a local newspaper. I can vouch for the truth of the trail conditions, having spent the last two summers in 10 day 100 mile loops in the Southern Sequoia National Park region. South of Sequoia National Park.

    Trails that appeared on my (Tom Harrison) maps were not maintained, and were very difficult to find at times. I recall one particular stretch that was about 4 miles of constant dead fall and overgrown brush, downhill which took 8 hours to traverse. It was brutal and excruciatingly difficult. It was not only challenging, but also dangerous.

    That said, there is also great solitude to be found. In 10 days I saw 3 souls, and none until day 5 or 6. And the fishing is AMAZING.

    Meanwhile, in the few miles that I crossed the Pacific Crest Trail, I saw scores of people.

    It seems to me that 99% of the people venturing out into the wilderness are looking to check a box off on their bucket list (like the JMT or PCT) leaving the vast wilderness untouched. I’m kind of mixed. Although the miles with poor trails are much more difficult, there is much more solitude, but it comes with increased risk and chance of injury or worse.

    From the tone of the conversation, it sounds like peace and quiet can be preserved with cross cut saws and trained crew members with hand tools and we just need a few more of you. I say “you” and not “us” as up to now, I have not volunteered time and talent to the cause. If I had more time, I would definitely volunteer.

    I hope the volunteer groups you work with keep in touch with prospect as well as true volunteers, as some of us can help financially if not with time, and might be able to contribute time some years in the future if we feel valued and appreciated.

    I do however make it a point to pick up any random piece of trash, wrapper, etc. that I see along the trail. It kinda raises my hackles to see trash way out in the wild, and I can lower my hackles by taking out the trash for the next explorer.