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Forest Service releases plan for Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | December 31, 2023 12:00 AM

The U.S. Forest Service has released a comprehensive plan for the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, marking a milestone for a route established in 2009 but used by hikers for decades prior.

The Forest Service, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released the document mid-December, outlining a vision for the trail and providing management, protection and use guidance. 

“It's been quite an effort to get to this point,” said Jeff Kish, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. 

The trail has existed in some capacity and seen use by hikers since the 1970s, Kish said. It was officially designated by Congress as part of the National Trails System in 2009, providing opportunities for hiking and backpacking across the Northwest United States, including through Lincoln County. The comprehensive plan is the latest step in a years-long process and fulfills requirements mandated by federal legislation.

Spanning 1,200 miles, the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail starts in Montana, crosses through northern Idaho and finishes on the Pacific coast in Washington. The trail runs east to west, crossing seven mountain ranges, three national parks, seven national forests, six wilderness areas and much more, according to Forest Service officials. 

The plan forms the framework for non-motorized use of the trail from Glacier National Park in Montana to Olympic National Park in Washington. It contains recommendations for routes, trail maintenance, resource protection and animal welfare. 

“National Scenic Trails, by law, are designated for a dual purpose. One is to provide for a natural experience and the other one is conservation,” Kish said.

The federal National Trails System Act, signed into law in 1968, states that national scenic trails should provide for maximum outdoor recreation potential and the conservation — and enjoyment — of the history, and natural and cultural resources in the area.  

The act also outlines a public process for the creation of a trail, including multiple rounds of public comment. 

In late 2022, the Forest Service opened a public comment period for the plan and its environmental analysis. A second comment period occurred in March and April of 2023 with an objection resolution meeting taking place in October. 

“It's been a challenge for the Forest Service to go through this process with so many different voices, but I felt my voice was heard,” said state Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who commented on the project, citing concerns about the timber industry. 

Despite those concerns, he supports the trail and looks forward to its completion, he said in late December.  

The development of the plan was focused on creating a vision for the trail as Congress designated it, according to Tracy Calizon, the assistant director for recreation for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region. 

"This comprehensive plan is the result of a collective effort that involved input from a wide range of stakeholders," said Sally Butts, director for recreation, lands and minerals for the Pacific Northwest Region of the Forest Service, in a press release. 

Throughout the comment periods, worries regarding the protection of grizzly bears and their habitat sparked concern among conservation groups. The Yaak Valley Forest Council, a Lincoln County-based conservation group focused on protecting critical habitat, suggested the trail take a southern route in 2020 to avoid disrupting grizzly bear territory.

But that reroute would be outside of the scope of the development of the plan as Congress assigned it, Calizon said. 

“The comprehensive plan is really a vision setting document,” Calizon said. “It's not that the trail can never be moved, it's just that moving it [right now] is outside of the scope of what Congress told us to do.”

The Yaak Valley Forest Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Even if the trail was rerouted, people would still use northern routes if they wanted to, according to Lincoln County Commissioner Josh Letcher. People are drawn to the trails that are the most scenic, he said. 

“The argument that moving [the trail] was going to change things is a moot point,” Letcher said.

The trail also has the potential to boost the Eureka-area economy as people may travel to complete the trail’s path, Cuffe said. Cuffe did mention concern about land management measures, like timbering and vegetation management, in the trail area. 

The tools, processes and ideas within the comprehensive plan create a framework for the future of the trail, where the Forest Service will work with other land management agencies to ensure that plans are in place, according to Rick Pringle, the acting trail administrator with the Forest Service. 

“This is something that is a really special resource for the north,” Pringle said. 

Now that the plan has been released, the Forest Service and local management officials will work to complete optimal location reviews, land acquisition and protection planning, according to Kish. *

“We’re just excited to see it be completed,” he said. 

Commissioners in Lincoln County look forward to other projects in the area, like trail maintenance and trail construction, that have been deferred while the Pacific Northwest Trail was in the works. Completing the scenic trail, Letcher said, will not only allow for the expansion of trails in the Eureka area, but also create more opportunities for people to get out into the wilderness. 

“[Hikers] pass through enjoying all the same things that we live here to enjoy,” Letcher said. “Let’s show them hospitality.” 

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.

* This paragraph has been updated to accurately describe next steps.