ALBANY, N.H. — Five years and nearly $10 million in repairs later, the harrowing legacy of Tropical Storm Irene still tarnishes the heavily forested trails and streams of the White Mountain National Forest.
Hillsides have eroded, some footbridges are missing, and washed-down debris has elevated riverbeds to levels that could cause more flooding in another big storm. As in other pockets of New England, particularly Vermont and Western Massachusetts, Irene is not forgotten.
“You can still see it’s a battle we’re not winning,” said Tiffany Benna of the US Forest Service this week as she walked the Sabbaday Falls Trail, located just off the Kancamagus Highway.
Lingering damage from the storm can be found across the heart of the National Forest, Benna said, affecting a broad swath of mountain wilderness that will attract throngs of visitors this leaf season.
At Sabbaday Falls, one of the most popular sites, Benna is worried that the agency might have to close the trail someday if it cannot continue its improvements and also replace wobbly Depression-era railings.
Some of that work was needed before Irene, but forest officials said the storm further delayed overdue maintenance, as heavily damaged trails — suddenly the first priority — were cleared and restored.
“It’s the story of the times,” she added. “The demands on our resources are more than the funding and appropriation we get.”
Those demands are made more urgent because of the enduring attraction of the White Mountains. More than 5 million people are estimated to use Forest Service sites in New Hampshire each year, with visits on pace to increase 15 percent this year, on top of a similar increase in 2015, agency officials said.
About $8 million in federal relief money helped with Irene-related repairs to highways and hard-packed trails in and near the White Mountain National Forest, but the damage done to some trails went untended as the funding dried up.
Although nearly all of the other work has been completed, four bridges on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which leads to the summit of Mount Washington, have not been replaced. One might never be rebuilt.
The delays have led to some grumbling. Brad White, co-owner of the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway, said a years-long wait for some trails to reopen seemed excessive.
“They did an OK job getting the highways back up, but they really have taken an incredibly long time in fixing the trails. We’re just now seeing some of the areas damaged by Irene open up again,” White said.
“Many people were frustrated by the inaction,” he added. “Leaving trails closed for four years is kind of ridiculous.”
Such is the scarring from a storm that caused more than 40 deaths in the United States, cut off flooded communities in Vermont, and lashed the hill towns and Berkshires in Massachusetts with river levels not seen in decades.
Vermont, for example, incurred close to $1 billion in damage, and some roads still show evidence of Irene’s wrath despite a herculean effort to repair and replace them.
In the White Mountains, Benna said she understands the frustration with the pace of the repairs — “we’re going as fast as we can go,” she argued — but said that the obligations of the federal government often mean projects are delayed as higher priorities are addressed.
Even one seemingly mundane budget item — managing the toilets in the White Mountain National Forest — costs at least $300,000 a year, she said.
The restoration effort is being helped by the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has raised $444,000 toward a $1 million goal to be matched by the Forest Service, according to Greg Peters, a foundation spokesman.
That money has been used, in part, for post-Irene projects such as restoring and relocating miles of trails near Waterville Valley and Crawford Notch. “It’s such an iconic place, to just kind of abandon it after the storm,” Peters said. “And it’s such a critical component to that region’s economy.”
The foundation also has created a partnership with the Appalachian Mountain Club to restore and reconstruct trails in the forest, build rock steps, improve drainage, and replace pedestrian and bog bridges.
At Sabbaday Falls, the prospect of closing the trail — even temporarily — jolted Monica Zieja, a firefighter from Medina, Ohio, who posed there with her husband to mark their first anniversary.
“It’s beautiful. That would just be a shame,” Zieja said. “I’d ask them to send me a return envelope so I can send them a check.”
In another part of the forest, Ben Wildes of Waterboro, Maine, tramped the last few yards of the battered Tuckerman Ravine Trail after hiking up and down Mount Washington in 5½ hours. He had nothing but kind words for the restoration effort.
“I understand why they’re having the issues that they’re having. You have to give the Forest Service props,” Wildes said. “It kind of makes sense if you look at the general condition of our economy over that time.”
At nearby Glen Ellis Falls, standing water and aging toilets are part of the deterioration that plagues another popular destination. Benna said this site shares top billing with Sabbaday Falls as an agency priority.
But the timing of any improvements there is uncertain, she said.
Still, much headway has been made in the long wake of a storm that dumped 3 to 10 inches of rain across the forest. “What we would expect to happen over decades happened in a couple of hours,” Benna said.
From his climbing business in North Conway, White said he is upbeat despite the aftereffects of the most damaging storm he has witnessed in the mountains.
“The forest is very tough,” White said. “It always seems to come back.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.