Wildfire, heavy use strained the Santa Catalinas. A new Forest Service plan could help

Volunteers hike up a trail in the Santa Catalina Mountains on their way to do erosion control work and clear the path from brush.

TUCSON — Southern Arizona's beloved Santa Catalina Mountains now have their first comprehensive trail plan, along with a wealth of federal funding for the U.S. Forest Service to implement it.

About 50 projects are included in the document that the U.S. Forest Service’s Coronado National Forest released on Friday. It will serve as “an aspirational, conceptual-level plan” for the Santa Catalina Ranger District over the next 15 years.

The plan aims to increase opportunities for outdoor recreation and ensure the sustainability of the trail system. Some 23 more miles of trails would be built, while others will be closed or modified in the district, which includes popular destinations like Mount Lemmon, Sabino Canyon and Pusch Ridge. New beginner trails, added parking space in popular trailheads, and a balance in the number of trails for different users are some of the planned changes.

The Forest Service is responsible for maintaining and overseeing more than 250 miles of trails in the area, but limited budget and personnel have created a work backlog. With no trail crews on staff, the bulk of that work is done by contractors, volunteers and partners.

Volunteer workforce will remain a need, according to officials. But a new stream of federal funds from the Great American Outdoors Act, or GAOA, is creating opportunities to invest in ambitious projects and infrastructure as well as to restore many miles of trails.

Lack of investment in Forest Service trails has been a national issue. There is a backlog of about $6 billion on “deferred maintenance” of trails and other infrastructure on Forest Service lands, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Early allocations of funding have allowed the Coronado National Forest to start some of the planned projects. The new funding stream, and other non-federal grants, make this a good time to get ahead as the agency pays increasingly more attention to outdoor recreation.

“The history of public-land funding for recreation comes in these sorts of waves and pulses,” said Adam Milnor, the Coronado National Forest’s recreation, heritage and lands staff officer, and lead of the trail plan development.

“We've been creative about finding volunteers and partners, but we recognize as an agency overall that there is a little bit of a mismatch between the public interest in this amenity, this opportunity to get outside, and what we're currently investing in it," Milnor added.

He believes that is changing.

“Recreation is the primary way that most people interact with nature," Milnor said. "People need nature the same way that they need art and music."

Plan addresses spike in visitors, 2020 wildfire

Volunteers with the Friends of the Santa Catalina Trails install rock steps on Pima Canyon Trail.

The Santa Catalina Ranger District is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Arizona. Rising to 7,000 feet in elevation above Tucson, the mountains harbor everything from desert shrubs to ponderosa pine.

Maintaining the roughly 250 miles of trails was already a big challenge for the Forest Service. The growth of outdoor tourism and a record number of people going out to the trails during the pandemic created new pressures.

Trails like Finger Rock, which used to see on average about 4,500 people each month, drew about 14,000 visitors in the same period during the pandemic, Milnor said.

Wildfire damage also amplified the need for a plan. About two-thirds of the trail system was affected in 2020 by the Bighorn Fire, which ravaged nearly 120,000 acres in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

“The fire certainly added some urgency to that situation,” and increased the costs of trail work and restoration, Milnor said.

The agency started reaching out for public comment in 2021, talking to key partners and volunteer organizations that for over a decade sustained trail maintenance on the mountain. Among them, the County Line Riders of Catalina, Tucson Saddle Club, Southern Arizona Hiking Club, Sonoran Desert Mountain Bicyclists, American Conservation Experience and Climbing Association of Southern Arizona.

They also received more than 3,000 public comments.

The most popular requests were to create more trails, the ability to adopt trails and bike-only trails.

Milnor said the request for more trails was the “central tension of the whole project,” because the agency is struggling to take care of existing ones. Creating new trails would also add environmental impacts, such as damaging the Mexican spotted owl habitat. The trick is how to modify the trail system to meet everyone’s needs and to add new routes where possible.

Some highly popular trails are not within the Forest Service trail system. The most popular, the Milagrosa Trail and the 50 Year Trail, don’t have secured access. Because trailheads are on Arizona State Trust land, users could lose access permanently if those lands are sold. The Forest Service hopes to adopt about 23 miles into the system.

Bike-only trails are a demand from mountain bikers and other users. The sport has grown enormously over the last decades, and single-use trails could reduce conflict with other trail users, like hikers.

The plan also includes the removal of 21 miles of trails, some of which were severely damaged by wildfires.

Some of the spotlight projects of the plan include two new beginner-intermediate trails: a canyon rim trail on Tanque Verde Falls, and an 8.5-mile trail in Mount Lemmon connecting Rose Canyon, Palisades, higher elevation campgrounds and Sunset trailhead. Several small trail sections are also planned to connect existing trails.

Most projects are still in the conceptual stage and have to go through environmental assessment and approval before they can compete for funding. Between 30 to 40% of the projects' costs are covered, Milnor said.

Trail maintenance relies on volunteer power

Patrick Diehl and Tori Woodard push a big rock out of the path in Pima Canyon Trail.

On a sunny winter morning, Patrick Diehl worked his way around a large boulder. Using a lever, he made the rock topple and settle where the trail dropped, creating a solid step down the dirt path. Along with other volunteers, he has worked on about 1.3 miles of the Pima Canyon Trail.

Along with his partner Victoria "Tori" Woodard, Diehl coordinates trail work for Friends of the Santa Catalina Trails, a newly founded nonprofit with four board members. They move rocks, cut back the brush and rake the ground, working on trails sometimes 40 hours a week, often with volunteers.

The couple moved to Tucson around 2009. Avid hikers, they hit the trails at least once a week, and noticed that many were severely unmaintained. It seemed that “something wasn’t happening,” Diehl said. There was an “appearance of general neglect.”

In 2015, they told the Forest Service about it.

Diehl got the former district ranger on the phone, who said the Forest Service didn't hire paid trail crew and that there was talk about closing one-third of the trails.

“We now know that, legally speaking, the Forest Service is required to maintain a trail if it's designated 'open' in the trail system,” Diehl said. “But I didn't like the idea that a whole bunch of trails might be closed.”

He and Woodard signed up as volunteers. They adopted sections of the Davis Spring Trail, Butterfly Trail and Pima Canyon Trail, and worked on six other trails.

Mountain bikers have also volunteered for over a decade.

“You kind of get tired hopping over the same tree for six months or, you know, riding on a trail that has erosion issues and the tread is slowly wearing away,” said Duncan Caldwell, president of the Tucson Off-Road Cyclists and Activists.

Even before the organization came to life in 2012, several people got together to start working on the trails. The 300-member cycling organization logged 2,700 hours of trail work last year on Mount Lemmon.

Mountain biking has grown exponentially in the last decade, and the organization was a key community partner in developing the new trail plan. Caldwell has been in touch with agency staff since 2009. The constant personnel movement has been a challenge, since proposals and communications often get lost, he said.

He recognizes the Coronado National Forest doesn’t have the funds or personnel to maintain the trails. When it comes to volunteering, “at the end of the day, it’s kind of fun,” Caldwell said.

On Pima Canyon Trail, a steady stream of hikers stopped to chat with Diehl and Woodard and thank them for their work.

"Our greatest challenge is finding people to help with trail work more than three miles from the trailhead," said Woodard. "Our greatest reward is seeing people who are no longer young and agile happily hiking on trails that our work has made safe for them."

Forest Service doesn't get enough funding

Members of Tucson Off-Road Cyclists and Activists work on Bug Springs Trail, in lower Mount Lemon, to reduce erosion.

Diehl and Woodard also acknowledge the agency is strained.

“It's the legislature in Washington, D.C., that doesn't give them enough money to do their job properly. I would like the Forest Service to have enough funding to maintain the trails so people can enjoy them, and also enough to protect the resource,” Woodard said.

“One of our goals is to educate the public about the fact that the Forest Service doesn't get enough funding for trail maintenance," Woodard added, "and to try to build a constituency that supports the Forest Service getting a bigger budget for recreation.”

Relying on volunteer groups to maintain the trails “isn’t proper management,” she said.

One mile of trail maintenance costs about $5,000. Annually, the Coronado National Forest gets $45,000 to $65,000 for taking care of about 1,000 miles of trails. There are some $30,000 extra in fees paid by visitors and trail guides that help.

“For every $10 we get to maintain trails from Congress and appropriations, we’re getting $50, $60 or $70,  depending on the year, of volunteer and partner support,” Milnor said, considering trail work was compensated at $27 an hour.

The agency has 11 partnerships in the Santa Catalina Ranger District alone. In 2019, more than 3,500 volunteers helped, though numbers have been going down since 2020.

Contractors generally do the heavy trail work in very remote areas.

Last year, Wild Arizona, an organization that partners with the Forest Service across Arizona, started working in the Santa Catalina Ranger District.

“It's nearly impossible for programs to be all volunteer, because you just can't make headway in a weekend or so," said Brian Stultz, deputy director of Wild Arizona. The nonprofit hires trained staff to work on the area.

Paid crews often spend eight days out in a row. There are many trails that are nearly impassable, covered by brush or washed out by monsoon storms and fires.

“They had to hike in six and a half miles just to get to work in Upper Romero, just before they even put a pick in the ground,” he said.

The plan envisions expanding the volunteer workforce and removing some trails, or portion of trails, from the system, like the Evans Mountain and lower Brush Corral trails, and a good portion of Cañada del Oro trail.

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Solving access issues

The sustainability of the trail system goes beyond nature conservation and trail restoration.

“A high priority in the plan is making sure that we retain access," Milnor said. "And so by that, I mean a legal way to get in."

Securing access to the 50 Year Trail, between Oro Valley and Oracle Junction, is one of the priorities. The area is extremely popular, as hundreds of people use it every weekend, according to the plan. It is a crisscross of unauthorized trails, outside of the trail system. People can only access it because of a 50-year lease (hence the name) of state land. But it could be sold at any time. The lease is up in 2038.

Duncan, with TORCA, has been biking there for almost two decades. For him, it is a given that the Forest Service should adopt the 50 Year Trail.

“You just can't simply ignore it, you can't keep kinda turning a blind eye,” he said.

That trail is not the only one at risk. National forest boundaries are surrounded by state trust or private land. A new owner cutting access is a likely scenario in many areas.

Milnor said solving the issue is not easy or cheap, but it’s something that everybody supports. Building a permanent road is the only way to maintain access for future generations, he added.

Hiking on an early winter morning on Finger Rock Trail, one of the most popular trails in Tucson located just above the Catalina Foothills, he greeted other visitors as they passed by. Many large houses are contiguous to the trail.

“If someone hadn't been proactive, in a different world, this entire area would have been completely inaccessible to people,” he said. “We have other areas where we're facing that same concern or threat now, where future development is going to mean that you can't get up to the forest or to the trails that you like to use.”

An altered mountain face: How wildfires are changing the Santa Catalina Mountains

Clara Migoya covers environment issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send tips or questions to

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Tucson's outdoor recreation area will have new trails, 15-year plan