Mono County’s hiking trails in rocky spot

A new focus on regional trail system is critical to economy, advocates say

The numbers speak for themselves.

Of the about $369 million that comes into Mono County every year as a result of direct spending by visitors, $223 million derives from the people who come here in the spring, summer, and fall.

About 80 percent of these 1.3 million visitors come specifically for outdoor recreation; out of these, the primary reason the majority of them—54.6 percent—come, is to hike, most often by using the area’s hundreds of miles of trails, according to Mono County Tourism studies.

Long, hard trails, short easy trails, rocky trails, maintained trails, goat path trails—trails are the primary infrastructure in the county that supports the summer economy (followed by fishing).

But for all their importance, for all the money they indirectly bring to the county, local trails are in trouble.

“We have hundred of miles of trails all over the region and it is all falling apart,” said Paul McFarland, a program director for Friends of the Inyo. “These are our public lands, we need to take care of them.”

McFarland knows something about trails. He has been working on them, creating them, and coordinating volunteer crews to take care of them for much of the past two decades.

In the past few years, the trail situation has changed, he said—and changed a lot.

Wind, water, snow, the impacts of millions of feet and hooves—all of this has outpaced the ability of the federal agencies that have normally maintained the trails with taxpayer dollars the ability to do so, including the local Inyo National Forest, that contains most of the Eastern Sierra’s trails.

Year-after-year, the budget cuts to the Inyo, which manages two million acres of land including two of the most highly visited wildernesses in the country, the John Muir Wilderness and the Ansel Adams Wilderness, have had a sharp and negative impact on trails, and the forest service itself acknowledges it.

“In general, the funds we get for maintenance are for recreation, and this covers more than trails,” said Sarah Tomsky, the district ranger for the Mono Basin Ranger District. “The regional office distributes it as they see fit. Our region sees that recreation is our bread and butter, but there is still not enough to go around.”

The lack of trail money is just a beginning. The big problem, according to McFarland and others who spoke Tuesday at the Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, is that the decline in funds is hitting at exactly the same time that a kind of paradigm shift is occurring across the country; the growing recognition of the economic and life-style importance of trails to rural and recreation-based economies.

A trail system that is ordered, that links communities, trailheads, and recreation activities to one another is one of the most prized resources a tourism-based economy can have, and the Eastern Sierra’s fragmented system is losing ground to places like Aspen.

“We are going to lose a race with every other tourism economy if we don’t get ahead of this,” said Mono County Supervisor Tim Alpers.

But how?

Every community in the county has some kind of trails wish list and some level of involvement in creating and maintaining trails. But with the forest service mostly out of the business of building new trails (due to concerns they cannot be maintained in an era of austere budgets), there is no single entity coordinating the entire thing.

That is where the county can be most effective, said McFarland.

“The county can provide the glue,” he said.

Supervisor Larry Johston said it comes down to priorities.

“If 55 percent come to hike, 46 percent come to fish and we put a lot of money into fishing and we don’t seem to have a problem with it, why aren’t we putting it into trails?”

The rest of the supervisors did not argue. Three of them, Byng Hunt, Larry Johnston and Tim Alpers, have been advocates of a regional trail system for years during their separate and various incarnations as public servants and the other two supervisors gave no argument, persuaded by the economics and the passionate testimony of locals like June Lake’s Jill Stark, who is credited with bringing the new Gull Lake trail into being.

“If you want to see something, you have to stand up and make it happen,” said McFarland. “That’s Jill Stark.”

A major shift toward trails is in the county’s highest interest, the supervisors  agreed and pledged to give what resources they could toward a regional trails project, including an increased emphasis on volunteer and cooperative agreements, working with the forest service on a trail maintenance sharing agreement process, and focusing planning and grant writing on a regional trail system.

One of the first such trails—a pilot project—is likely to be a trail from Lee Vining to Yosemite National Park.

This project, if successful, could persuade grantees and federal agencies to invest in even more trail efforts, the supervisors noted.

Correction: This story has been corrected since it was first posted. The quote, "If 55 percent come to hike and 46 percent come to fish and we put a lot of money into fishing and we don't seem to have a problem with it, why aren't we putting it into trails?" was erroneously attributed to Alicia Vennos, Mono County's economic development manager, in the original version. The statement was made by Supervisor Larry Johnston. The Times regrets the error.