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

NRG Stadium
Construction underway for coronavirus medical shelter at NRG Stadium

Just weeks after the Houston Rodeo was canceled due to fears of coronavirus community spread, NRG Stadium is undergoing a transformation to serve as an ancillary medical site for patients.

Essential workers struggling to find child care amid coronavirus shutdowns can now find a provider and potentially receive financial assistance through a new Southeast Texas database. (Courtesy Pexels)
Essential workers in Southeast Texas can now search for child care, receive financial assistance

Essential workers struggling to find child care amid coronavirus shutdowns can now find a provider and potentially receive financial assistance through a new Southeast Texas database.

Six jail employees who had contact with the inmate have been sent home for self-quarantine. (Courtesy Pexels)
Montgomery County inmate tests positive for coronavirus

All Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office jail staff and inmates are now required to wear masks.

Workers at Inkjet Inc. are distilling hand sanitizer. (Courtesy Inkjet Inc)
Willis-based ink company Inkjet Inc. now producing hand sanitizer

Inkjet Inc. is repurposing the chemicals it uses to create industrial inks to produce hand sanitizer for industrial corporations, hospitals and first responders.

(Kaitlin Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
ROUNDUP: 5 recent coronavirus stories from the North Houston area readers should know

Catch up on some of the latest coronavirus updates for the North Houston area below.

Houston Airport System officials expect March passenger data to be significantly lower than in other months. Foot traffic at IAH was light March 24. (Emily Heineman/Community Impact Newspaper)
TSA limits checkpoints at George Bush Intercontinental Airport; Houston Airport System expects significant decline in March passengers

With low passenger travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at George Bush Intercontinental Airport have been consolidated to make better use of resources and personnel, Houston Airport System officials said.

Volunteers unload food donations for the Montgomery County Food Bank. (Courtesy Drive West Communications)
ExxonMobil makes $250,000 donation to local food banks

The energy company said the Houston Food Bank will receive $200,000, including $50,000 in gasoline gift cards. The Montgomery County Food Bank will also receive $50,000.

All nonessential businesses throughout the county, including in downtown Conroe, have been closed. (Andy Li/Community Impact Newspaper)
PHOTOS: Scenes of Montgomery County as residents deal with stay-at-home order

The ongoing coronavirus outbreak and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough's stay-at-home order, effective March 27 through April 30, have replaced residents on the streets of one of the fastest growing areas in the country with silence.

Lone Star College is providing tips for parents and students adapting to online learning. (Andrew Christman/Community Impact Newspaper)
Lone Star College offers online learning tips for parents

Lone Star College is providing tips for parents and students adapting to online learning.

The Texas Torque team is planning to produce hundreds of face shields for medical personnel. (Courtesy Scott Rippetoe)
Conroe ISD robotics team joins national effort to produce medical protective gear

The Woodlands-based Texas Torque is working to provide hundreds of face shields to health care providers.

(Kaitlin Schmidt/Community Impact Newspaper)
‘I’m trying to stay alive’: Inside the life of an immunocompromised Conroe resident during coronavirus

Susan Brassard said her surgery has been temporarily cancelled because of coronavirus. But the longer she waits, the more worries she gets.

The employees of The Adventure Begins Comics, Games & More gather their characters together in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons." (Kate Looney/The Adventure Begins Comics, Games & More)
5 recent business stories from the Houston area readers should know

Read updates on how local businesses are reacting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.