Disrepair…or misunderstood?

Nicholas Kristof apparently was on the John Muir Trail with his daughter about the same time GG was on the trail with his daughter (but GG had 3 llamas, while poor Nicholas had to make do with a backpack).  How did we miss each other?  Anyways, he wrote a bit about how we all own national parks but then included this damning note:

Even on the John Muir Trail, large stretches are in disrepair and had turned into creeks of snowmelt when my daughter and I hiked them. This quickly erodes the trails so much that new ones have to be built nearby. This reluctance to pay for maintenance isn’t even fiscally prudent, for it’s far more expensive to build new trails than to maintain old ones.

Now there are a lot of things that need repair or maintenance in national parks, but you know what?  It isn’t clear that the John Muir Trail is anywhere near the top of the list.

First off, those trails made by the CCC in the 1930s?  They had this amazing tendency to run through meadows.  Hey Nicholas, did you notice that the Muir Trail went well up above Evolution Lake rather than plowing through the meadow at its edge? Same deal south of Pinchot Pass. You see that old section wandering off south of Wallace Creek? There are several generations of older trail below the current one at McClure Meadow as well. If you have an eye for it, you could see the old trail sections all along the Muir Trail running well below the relocated trail.  Those places where there are now multiple ruts?  Nearly all are in, you guessed it, meadows, and nearly always where the original trail builders had plopped the trail down. An awful lot of the modern JMT was built well after the 1930s. Those relatively rare remaining meadow trenches are sometimes in places where relocation is nearly impossible; others probably are on the to-do list for the trail crews. (Building trail can be hard work; one trail crew will probably spend nearly the whole summer this year rebuilding part of the Shepherd Pass trail that was destroyed in a big rockfall).

Second, depending on when you hike, there can be a lot of surface runoff if nearby snow fields are still present. Yes, some trails get filled with water at these times; along with mosquitoes and bears, this is a burden you accept hiking at those times of year. Arguably the recent explosion in PCT through-hikers has put a big burden on those poor-draining sections of trail because PCT through-hikers come through as early in the season as possible when these trails are waterlogged and especially vulnerable to erosion.

Third, a trail is almost never built anew right next to a heavily eroded part.  It simply has moved over because hikers refuse to get their feet muddy (and stock will often move out of such ruts regardless).  These “new” trails are simply trails of use, not specially constructed replacements (see what replacement trails really look like, above); occasionally a trail crew will install a water bar or two on such reroutes to try to get the “new” trail to last a bit longer before becoming another ditch. And these are typically NOT trails that you choose to maintain: they are the ones you really do have to replace (the alternative, present in a few places where you cannot get out of the meadow, is to make the trail elevated, a back-breaking piece of work as small walls are constructed about the trail and then filled in with gravel or dirt).

So basically, what you attribute to lack of maintenance is a combination of poor initial design, early season water flow, and hiker disdain for staying on trail. True lack of maintenance looks like bizarre trails that go up and down a slope to get around a downed tree or rock, or destroyed water bars that divert streams into rather than away from trails, or paths that simply plow straight up or down a slope because so many have shortcut the switchbacks. There are a few of these on the Muir Trail, but a surprisingly small number in GG’s experience.

Frankly, the Muir Trail is in better shape than the Great Walks trails in New Zealand, which are the pride and joy of NZtourism and the target of visitors from around the world.

Look, GG knows that almost none of Kristof’s readers will have hiked the Muir Trail ever, so just pretending this trail gem is in disrepair probably seems a fair way to point out that the parks are underfunded. It does risk those few who have travelled it wondering, if this is disrepair, we are doing pretty good. But arguably the problem is quite different, as GG noted before. The prestige trails will get attention, and having New York Times columnists complaining about them probably will focus a bit more money on them.  What we are losing are all the other access trails.  Perhaps Kristof noticed that there were the foundations of a bridge near the confluence of Palisade Creek and the Middle Fork of the Kings River.  That bridge was washed out years ago.  Is there a replacement? No.  The trail that would take you to Tehipite Valley, lying under one of the great Sierran domes, is a shadow of the Muir Trail, in places little more than a route.  The former John Muir Trail into Center Basin and over Junction Pass is abandoned and unsigned despite large chunks still being in good shape. There was a trail from Paradise Peak to Castle Rocks long ago that is forgotten and overgrown. The trail into Gardiner Basin is abandoned, as was the trail into Lower Twin Lake at the northern edge of Yosemite. The list goes on.

As tempting as it is to think that rewilding large areas by letting trails go away is in fact a good thing, it really is not.  Most people are not capable of serious off-trail travel; for those few capable of it, there are in the Sierra lots of opportunities even if every trail ever cut was restored to full use (Palisade Basin, Ionian Basin, Kaweah Peaks area and so on). We risk a vicious cycle where heavy prestige trail use diverts resources into maintaining that trail and abandoning others, which increases the use of the prestige trail, and so on until the land along such trails is so beaten down that users cannot distinguish wilderness camping from a parking lot while wild lands that could absorb some of the use are left inaccessible. Worse might be the dilution of wilderness experience in such a situation to the point where support for Wilderness might evaporate.

Not mentioned is what goes on in the National Forests.  Official Wilderness is a Disney-esque proposition: the world as it was run in the 1850s. (One officer responsible for maintaining trails had the temerity at a meeting to suggest that the Wilderness be closed for a week and the Forest to allow all manner and types of modern equipment, from chainsaws to helicopters, to gussy up the Wilderness, just like how Disneyland is cleaned up every night.  This did not go ver well). National Forests administer their Wilderness with that 1850s notion: chainsaws are not allowed (unless there is a forest fire to fight), helicopters cannot land, etc. The Forests are even more cash-starved than the parks; one resource officer recounted being told he had to cut his trail crews to single individuals, to which he asked, just how is this person to use the two-man saw made necessary by the ban on chainsaws? The result is that many Forest trails have odd detours around fallen trees or washouts, many of which get heavily eroded or produce a spiderweb of alternatives. The Forests too, are removing trails from their inventory as they lack the resources to maintain them (for instance, the Arapahoe Lake trail in the Indian Peaks Wilderness had its trail sign pulled out a couple of years ago).

So look, the basic notion Kristof advocates is correct: we need things to be kept up, but we need to keep the whole system up in order to be able to absorb the increasing numbers of us who want to visit these national lands with minimal damage. But is the Muir Trail the poster child for neglect? Not at all; arguably it is more the cause than the victim.

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