Volunteers make ‘huge’ contributions to maintenance of Forest Service’s vast trail system
Tenmile Campground sits a few miles north of the Gospel Hump Wilderness boundary in North Central Idaho. A creek of the same name meanders along it.
The nearest pavement is a winding, 40-minute drive on dirt roads and another 40 minutes from there to reliable cell service. In the cool dusk on a recent weekday, nine mostly volunteer trail workers were gathered around the campfire - swapping stories after their first full day.
Conner Hall, a Boise hospital chaplain, had just prepared a bag of backcountry dessert.
“It does not look good at all,” one reviewer chimed in.
“It looks like blueberry pancake batter,” Hall replied.
It was supposed to be blueberry cheesecake, and Hall noted the expiration date was back in 2018.
“It’s only five years old,” he offered as a defense of sorts, adding after his first bite: “It tastes like huckleberry pancakes, kinda. Yeah, not bad, but it's not cheesecake.”
Hall grew up in nearby Grangeville, and said his dad used to hike the trail they’re working on - now densely overgrown in places.
“The fact that we're actually choosing this trail to work on is kind of cool,” he said. “It's like, ‘Oh!’, there's a place up here that's beautiful, and now we're making it something that is accessible without crawling over logs outside.”
‘Everything you need’
The trip was put on by the Idaho Trails Association, a nonprofit that organizes dozens of excursions like these every year. Last year, volunteers worked nearly 12,000 hours on 68 different projects, clearing 280 miles of trails and removing some 4,400 logs, according to data provided by the group.
Alex Cravener, the group’s trail projects coordinator, said ITA handles tools and logistics for projects. Volunteers just need to show up with an able body, camping gear and a willingness to work.
“We bring everything else you need,” she said.
This outing is a three-day project, but ITA does trips as long as three weeks.
“We got 51 logs done in half a group today,” she said. “I don't know how much the other group got done, but if we can get 50 logs done a day, that's huge. That's 150 logs. People don't have to like whack their shins on to hike this trail next time … so I’ll take it.”
One of the volunteers keeping warm and chatting about the next day’s work plan was Boise retiree Christopher Smith, who goes by his middle name Trejchel.
“That’s how everybody knows me,” he explained.
A friend invited him to an ITA trail project last year, and then he signed up for a couple this year.
“You know, it's physical labor, but you're outdoors, you're breathing fresh air, you're seeing the result of your work,” he said. “It's really nice to, you know, clear a trail and be able to look at it and say, well, you know, we accomplished something.”
“As trail users, we all hike down trails where we see logs that have been cut and places where the trail has been cleaned up and,” he added. “I never really tended to think very much about that, you know, who's doing all this work and this is a way of giving back.”
A decade ago, the Government Accountability Office released a report on the Forest Service’s trail system. It found the agency had “more miles of trail than it has been able to maintain, resulting in a persistent maintenance backlog with a range of negative effects.”
Several years later, Congress passed the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, which called on the agency to develop a strategy to “significantly increase the role of volunteers and partners in … trail maintenance.”
In turn, the agency developed a sustainable trail strategy and other efforts, like the 10-year trail challenge. Last fiscal year, volunteers and partner groups like the ITA did maintenance work on 28,500 miles of trail, nearly 2,400 more than Forest Service staff, according to agency data. The whole system is more than 160,000 miles long.
“Their contributions are huge,” said Carol Hennessey, who - among other responsibilities - manages the trails program in the agency’s northern region.
She said the service’s employees and contractors are “highly skilled” trail builders who can help train volunteers. What those volunteers give in return, she said, is “increased support and stewardship so that we know what we're doing can be maybe doubled.”
Throughout her career, Hennessey said there have always been volunteer trail workers. But the scale of the work they and groups like the ITA do now is at a whole different level.
“It just keeps growing, and it amazes me,” she said, adding: “the support that the Forest Service feels from that effort is real.”
‘A happy place’
It’s a cold, fall morning back at Tenmile. The crew is boiling water for coffee and breakfast and preparing for another tough day.
Cravener helped divvy up tools – loppers for removing overhanging branches and crosscut saws for non-motorized log removal inside the wilderness boundary. Then the first team hiked south toward the Gospel Hump.
Gina Cretser, a retired therapist from Moscow, Idaho,, has volunteered with the ITA for several years. She called the rugged, outdoor work a “happy place” for her.
She gets why the appeal of volunteer hard labor may not be obvious to everyone.
“I think our world is structured in such a way that a lot of times people don't get the outdoor time that that our bodies need and our minds need and kind of our souls too,” she said. “So this is a good way to do it and also give back to something that I find important and valuable.”
Shoes swapped out for sandals, the group crossed a creek soon after entering into wilderness. And then prepped their crosscut saws, whose long bars sport jagged teeth and simple wooden handles.
Cretser was paired up with her Moscow neighbor and now friend Annette Bridges, whom she met on a previous trip.
“And now here we are!” Cretser exclaimed.
“The dynamic duo!” Bridges added.
They got into a steady rhythm, and sawdust piled up as the cut deepened. Then came a sharp CRACK.
One end of the log freed, several others gathered on one side and – on counts of three – used their legs to push it off the trail. A couple dozen more logs follow, before a hard-earned snack break.
“It's very beautiful. And like we've all said, you know, it's hard to get to when the trail is all covered with logs,” she said. “So, I mean, opening this up, more people will get to see it. It's just pristine. There's no human tracks, there's animal tracks. I feel lucky.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.