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House committee OKs wilderness trail resolution

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The quality and safety of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness has diminished in recent years thanks to wildfires, weather and neglect, and now Idaho lawmakers want federal forest officials to make trail repair in the vast backcountry a priority.

On Thursday, the House Resources and Conservation Committee unanimously endorsed a non-binding resolution that urges the head of the U.S. Forest Service to declare the wilderness area and surrounding national forest a natural resources disaster area. The measure also asks the federal agency to take steps now to improve conditions of the 2,500-mile trail system or make things easier for a legion of Idaho volunteers to do the job.

"This really just brings attention to the problems that are there," said Rep. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace, the resolution's lead sponsor.

Created by Congress in 1980, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness is a vast backcountry that stretches across central and eastern Idaho. At more than 2.3 million acres, it's the second biggest protected wilderness area in the nation and the largest in the lower 48 states.

It's also a popular outdoor playground, drawing thousands of hikers, sportsmen and other recreationists from around the world each year.

But for many of those users, including outfitters and guides and state and national backcountry horsemen groups, the trail system has degraded gradually over time. Some trails have been closed, others obstructed by fallen trees burned in fires or knocked down by strong winds.

Many other trails, including some in the adjacent national forests, have become unsafe because of wear and tear and years of neglect.

"The trail system is really compromising the health and safety of users," Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, told the committee. "This (resolution) is about bringing attention to the growing backlog of trail maintenance and loss of access, despite the efforts of volunteer groups."

Andy Brunelle, a representative of the U.S. Forest Service, acknowledged the challenge of taking proper care of a trail maintenance in massive area where mechanized vehicles and modern machinery and tools are prohibited.

Brunelle said the agency has not ignored its duty to clear and maintain trails, citing hundreds of miles of work done lat year by agency crews and volunteers. But federal money for trail projects has been flat for more than a decade.

For example, $273,000 was appropriated to cover trail repairs in the Payette National Forest in 2004, covering work in the forest boundaries and inside the adjacent wilderness area. That budget was increased by just $100 for fiscal 2012, he said.

"There has been restraint on federal agency budgets," Brunelle told the committee. "There is also competition in the agency for that money."

The resolution, which now heads to the full House for debate, has drawn criticism from environmentalists. The Wilderness Society said declaring the wilderness area a disaster area is irresponsible and the wrong strategy for improving trail conditions.

"The Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness has some of the best wildlife habitat, water quality and fish habitat in the Lower 48 states," said Craig Gehrke, Boise director of the Wilderness Society. "Spreading wild misinformation about wilderness and designating one of Idaho's icons a 'disaster area' is not the right way to fix the trails."

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