Fighting for the forest: Sam Houston National Forest in need of funding

Ed Ponikvar, the vice president of Sam Houston Trails Coalition, walks along the West Side Multi Use Trails. The coalition needs more funds for Hurricane Harvey-related damages as well as trail maintenance. (Eva Vigh/Community Impact Newspaper)
Ed Ponikvar, the vice president of Sam Houston Trails Coalition, walks along the West Side Multi Use Trails. The coalition needs more funds for Hurricane Harvey-related damages as well as trail maintenance. (Eva Vigh/Community Impact Newspaper)

Ed Ponikvar, the vice president of Sam Houston Trails Coalition, walks along the West Side Multi Use Trails. The coalition needs more funds for Hurricane Harvey-related damages as well as trail maintenance. (Eva Vigh/Community Impact Newspaper)

Image description
Image description
Image description
The Sam Houston National Forest—which spans about 163,000 acres and 280 miles of trails across several counties, including Montgomery—is one of four national forests in Texas. It also draws visitors to the Conroe area, said Shannon Overby, director of the Conroe Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“The great outdoors is one of our major marketing pillars,” Overby said. “Probably one of the biggest reasons visitors come to the Conroe area is because of the outdoor activities offered here.”

But maintaining the forest is a daily fight against erosion, a lack of funding and years of improper design—largely fought by volunteers, officials said.

On Jan. 11, the East Side Trailhead—the last remaining portion of trails to be repaired following Hurricane Harvey damage in August 2017—was reopened. Harvey followed the Tax Day floods in April 2016, and it caused nearly $5 million in damages, said Ed Ponikvar, vice president of the Sam Houston Trails Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining the forest’s trails. Both storms devastated the trails.

“These trails were all obliterated,” he said. “[The storms] made holes in the ground that were armpit deep. It just wiped out stuff, ripped bridges out.”


Proper trail construction could lessen storm damage, said Eddie Taylor, the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the National Forests and Grasslands, a state agency. None of Sam Houston’s trails meets Forest Service standards, which include criteria on trail conditions, design and drainage.

In fact, only 16% of trails statewide met standards in fiscal year 2019, a decrease from 37% in

FY 2015, according to the Forest Service. Nationwide, the Forest Service—which helps manage more than 158,000 miles of trails across the U.S.—has a maintenance backlog of about 121,660 miles of trails.

The Sam Houston coalition is now turning to the community to help fundraise for critical projects such as repairing damaged bridges, officials said.

“It’s fallen on volunteers to provide improvements,” volunteer Jane Prentis said. “A lot of erosion control has been done, but more is needed.”

Erosion control

Most of Sam Houston’s trails were built in the mid-1900s without proper design guidelines and on sand that is highly erodible, forest officials said.

“Many of the trails ... were not sustainably built nor well laid out,” said Trey Cooksey, a recreational trails program manager for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, a state agency.

When it rains on poorly designed trails, water flows directly down the path, eroding the soil, officials said. Proper design includes dips to divert water or rerouting to a zig-zag pattern.

Most of Sam Houston’s trails, such as the Lone Star Hiking Trail, are also on highly erodible sandy soil, coalition volunteer Allen Pape said.

“It’s one of the most difficult soil structures in the U.S. to build sustainable trails,” he said, adding that most trailheads have not seen improvements in 20-plus years.

Taylor said the Forest Service has worked to implement better trail construction as an agency.

“We have learned to value trail location,” he said. “New trails ... are being built using the best trail construction practices.”

Funding challenges

The Sam Houston National Forest relies on various revenue sources for funding, but it also gives back to the local economy, Ponikvar said.

Revenue sources include the state fuel tax, forest entry fees, and grants and donations—which total more than $5 million annually, Ponikvar said. The forest is also a designated wildlife management area, so fees collected from hunters pay for programs such as wild turkey restoration.

The forest offers camping, hunting, fishing and other recreational opportunities, as well as timber. When timber is removed, a portion of the funds return to the county for schools and roads.

The coalition has two Texas Recreational Trails Program grants from 2013 and 2014, which are administered by the TPWD, but the coalition needs community help to cover 20% of the cost, Pape said.

Ponkivar said he has spent $40,000 over the years from his own pocket to pay for trail needs.

“We are being starved of ... funds,” he said.

Nationwide issues

The Forest Service—which has worked on several projects at Sam Houston, including opening the East Side Trails—has undergone recent budget cuts. From FY 2017 to FY 2020, the Forest Service annual budget decreased from $6.07 billion to $5.69 billion.

"The [Forest Service once] had lots of money ... and they have been cut, cut, cut," Prentis said.

The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act—which required the Forest Service to increase the use of volunteers and partners for trail maintenance without designating additional funds—was passed in 2016 in response to the nationwide maintenance backlog of trails. However, the percentage of national parks trails meeting Forest Service standards between FY 2016 to FY 2019 was only about 23%, according to the Forest Service.

This could be partially due to large rain events, which skew the numbers, Taylor said. But coalition members said it is a challenge to meet the criteria due to limited funds.

“In order to meet the standards, it would bankrupt you,” Ponikvar said.

Despite the challenges, the Sam Houston National Forest remains a destination for Conroe and Montgomery-area residents such as Melanie Michaelchuk, who said she is preparing for her first overnight hike.

“I’m happy to have a place so close to home to explore,” she said.

To donate, visit https://www.samhoustontrails.org/
By Eva Vigh
Eva Vigh joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2018 as a reporter for Spring and Klein. Prior to this position, she covered upstream oil and gas news for a drilling contractors' association.


MOST RECENT

As proposed Senate redistricting went under scrutiny, the state’s first congressional map, featuring two additional congressional districts, was released. (Community Impact Staff)
Senate hearings, congressional map released: Read the latest on redistricting in Texas

As proposed Senate redistricting went under scrutiny, the state’s first congressional map, featuring two additional congressional districts, was released.

Year over year in August, half of Conroe and Montgomery ZIP codes saw the median price of homes sold rise. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Real estate at a glance: Number of homes sold in ZIP 77306 nearly doubles year over year

Year over year in August, half of Conroe and Montgomery ZIP codes saw the median price of homes sold rise.

A new development will be coming to east Kyle. (courtesy Texas Department of Transportation)
CI NATION ROUNDUP: East Kyle to see new development; Katy Boardwalk District announces updates, and more top stories

Take a look at the top five trending stories across all of Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas as of Sept. 27.

The first cluster of tenants is confirmed for Marcel Boulevard, a commercial development underway at I-45 South and Grand Central Parkway. (Courtesy Kaplan Public Relations)
Cajun restaurant, day spa, tabletop games: Tenants have been announced for Marcel Boulevard in Conroe

The first cluster of tenants is confirmed for Marcel Boulevard, a commercial development underway at I-45 South and Grand Central Parkway.

METRONext is the agency’s $3.5 billion bond approved by voters in November 2019, which aims to ease traffic congestion, add expansion to the METRO, and make accessibility and safety upgrades.
(Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
METRO Board approves $1.3 billion budget, discusses METRONext projects

The METRO board of directors met Sept. 21 to give an overview of the drafted budget as well as to receive public comments. It was unanimously approved at the Sept. 23 board meeting.

Montgomery County Food Bank volunteers take donations. (Courtesy Montgomery County Food Bank)
Montgomery County Food Bank receives grant following February's winter storm

After the freeze put a strain on food bank operations, the United Way of Greater Houston awarded a grant worth over $116,000 to the Montgomery County Food Bank.

Kyle City Council voted 6-1 and approved the new citywide trail master plan that will utilize 2020 bond election funds for trails that will help connect Austin to San Antonio. (Courtesy Pexels)
CI Nation roundup: Perfect Game coming to Cedar Park; Kyle City Council approves trail master plan to connect Austin to San Antonio and more top stories

Take a look at the top five trending stories across all of Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas as of Sept. 24.

Big League Dreams will reopen in December with updated turf, seating, nets, fencing, graphics and other upgrades. (Courtesy city of League City)
Big League Dreams to reopen in League City; New Caney ISD officials address student possession of a gun, and more top stories from Greater Houston

Read the most popular business and community news from the past week from the Greater Houston area.

The new single-family residential rental community anticipates 169 single-family detached homes and 140 duplexes. (Courtesy Pierpont Communications)
Rental community Lakeside Conroe debuts on Lake Conroe

The new single-family residential rental community anticipates 169 single-family detached homes and 140 duplexes.

Lone Star College System was awarded funding from Metallica's All Within My Hands Foundation for the third year in a row. (Andrew Christman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Lone Star College System receives funding from Metallica foundation for technical training

Lone Star College System has received around $225,000 over the past three years from the band's nonprofit foundation.

The mixed fajitas ($10.99) come with grilled chicken and steak with sauteed onions. The dish is served with guacamole, rice and beans. (Chandler France/Community Impact Newspaper)
Owner of Angie’s Mexican Restaurant in Conroe offers meals inspired by home country

“When I opened my restaurant, I opened it for them—for my daughter and my wife,” Valdez said. “People that come here to eat, they feel like we are their family.”