“I love this place,” says Mark Boyer, who’s been coming here since the 1980s. “My friends get discouraged with me. They do interventions on me to get me out of the Middle Fork.”
The Middle Fork Valley is publicly owned forest land less than an hour from downtown Seattle. For decades, it felt to Boyer like he had the entire place to himself. And for good reason: few people took their vehicles up the valley’s crater-pocked, axle-breaking Forest Service road, which was never meant for public use.
But, now, a newly paved road could bring tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands – of visitors to the valley every summer. But the valley might not be ready for them.
That’s because, as more and more people use publicly owned lands for recreation, public agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand for rangers, trail maintenance – even the need to restock toilet paper in outhouses. And the problem could get even worse under President Trump’s hiring freeze.
“Definitely having an outhouse at the beginning of the trail is important,” says Nikki Eller, who hikes frequently in the Seattle area. “I prefer trails where I know I’m not going to get lost.”
“Public lands are a public resource,” Eller adds. “They do belong to everybody. You do want everybody to be able to get out there.”
But the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which own the land, don’t always have the resources to accommodate recreationists’ needs.
“They’re public lands that historically have been managed for timber by agencies that are skilled and experienced in managing lands for timber,” says Jon Hoekstra, the director of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, a nonprofit that’s trying to work with public agencies to build trails and trailheads and outhouses for the Middle Fork Valley. “The public wants to also use those lands for recreation: for hiking or for fishing or for riding a mountain bike or for riding a horse. And the system hasn’t necessarily caught up with that demand.”
“That might be the crux of the conundrum,” he concludes.
Infrastructure for visitors isn’t just for visitors’ benefit. Martie Schramm’s the district ranger for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. She says trails and parking lots can help protect the forest by keeping people out of fragile places.
“We don’t want them to take a user-created route down to a wetland or something,” she explains.
Schramm says, in an ideal world, she’d have two employees overseeing just the Middle Fork Valley. Right now, she has no one.
That’s because, the employee responsible for overseeing recreation in the Interstate-90 corridor left at the end of January.
“He was a key individual in writing grants and secured many grants for us which allowed us to hire quite a few temporary employees,” Schramm says. “He was responsible for supervising our temporary workforce. He helped direct the work for volunteers, what trails they were going to be working on and the type of work that we wanted them to do.”
Because of the hiring freeze, Schramm can’t replace him. She’s worried that, if she hasn’t hired anyone come June, the money set aside for his salary could be siphoned off: used to fight forest fires.
“With that position being vacant right now, we pretty much have a skeleton crew,” Schramm says. “Our folks are going to be stretched really thin.”
Back in the Middle Fork, Mark Boyer showed me a stretch of road that’s already been paved. It leads to a nine-mile hike up Mailbox Peak.
“Fifteen years ago, when I used to go up there, the trailhead was marked by a toothbrush,” Boyer says. “And now, on any nice weekend, the trailhead is packed, and cars line the road, sometimes a quarter mile up the road.”
Boyer says the Middle Fork is already changing—and the most important thing now is to get ready.