Escalating dog issues with regard to safety on local winter trails have created concern at higher levels of the Forest Service organization. Ultimately, this concern has reminded me of the need to adhere to the agency motto expressed by the first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, and supported by President Theodore Roosevelt when they established our national forests: “Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”
Today, the U.S. Forest Service is responsible for managing more than 193 million acres of public lands in the nation’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands. Groomed winter trails, due to their constant maintenance and concentrated use, have a higher national standard of care and safety requirement than many of our summer trails.
As a result of consistent problems at other trails, our local Forest has decided to implement a seasonal closure order for dogs on the South Valley Trails system. It would be irresponsible for Forest Service officials to ignore the national standard of care of no dogs on groomed trails with regard to the new South Valley trails. We often forget the convenient recreational opportunities we have in our backyard are a national resource with national expectations.
Over the past week, I’ve been inundated with calls and emails regarding the recent dog policy at South Valley. To date, my office has received calls from people who are frustrated by a lack of public input. Some have gone so far as to recommend the Forest Service ban children because like dogs, they bite people, too. However, we also have experienced an outpouring of public support for the policy as many people, including those with dogs, have had poor experiences on our dog-friendly trails.
The attitudes and comments of some people misconstrue the truth of the situation, minimize safety concerns, and fail to consider the future management implications of the partially-completed trail system. Often, these people focus only on the issue of dog excrement at trailheads. While this is an obvious issue, it is not the actual reason for closing the trail system to dogs. Instead, this is a proactive decision that reduces hazards for the people who recreate on the Forest and recognizes the higher level of care that is consistent with national-user expectations for groomed trails. Threatening to pull donations from our partners who maintain and groom trails is short sighted, illogical, and does not address the actual situation.
Almost every conversation I have had and email I have received that encourages the Forest to rescind this closure reinforces the long-term validity of this decision. These conversations and emails all mention the congestion and complexities of recreating with pets on existing trails and how much better it is at the South Valley Trails system. These comments, when considered by professional outdoor recreation planners charged with the long-term management of our trails, actually validate the agency’s current position.
Outdoor recreation planners anticipate that the South Valley winter opportunities and visitation could easily eclipse current use levels in Teton Canyon, especially as additional opportunities become available. This is the right decision to prevent future issues and to create a more pleasant experience for the majority of users. For public safety, the national standard of care is not to allow dogs on groomed trails. Nationally, some trails have groomed areas that are designated for dogs, but these are usually smaller, less desirable places with less maintenance. We are fortunate to still have several winter trails in our valley that do allow dogs. Perhaps we can focus on adhering to the leash laws and responsible pet ownership to ensure they stay a viable winter option. I urge members of our dog-friendly community to think a little broader as they consider the impacts their activities have on other people and their needs. Let’s remember the words of Gifford Pinchot and take the I, me, and my out of these conversations and focus on a long-term vision that is good for everyone.