Trail crew volunteer Frank Jahn works on a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail that winds through the burn area of the Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia River Gorge. (Courtesy/ The Oregonian)
Leif Hoven can walk down a trail he hasn’t visited in years and immediately recognize all the spots that he’s worked on, hours of effort that remain invisible to nearly everyone else.
The logs he helped cut that were blocking the trail, the water crossings he helped hikers navigate and the muddy hillsides he helped stabilize are vital to keeping trails safe and accessible to the public, but his work is also meant to be hidden, to make human interference appear as natural as possible.
“You don’t want to have it look like it’s just been completely mowed and shaven and barren,” Hoven said. “All of a sudden you come to a spot that’s been touched up and cleaned up, you do tend to notice it.”
Hoven is one of hundreds of volunteer trail crew members who spend their time making Oregon’s hiking trails safer and more accessible. Their work ranges from clearing brush along trails on the coast, clearing landslides in the Columbia River Gorge and cutting burned trees from the many places where wildfire has swept through in recent years.
Now the chair of the Mount Hood chapter of the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Hoven has grown from volunteering on the trails to helping oversee the process. His organization helps maintain all 2,650 miles of the famed hiking trail, but it’s only one organization working on trails in the region.
Working alongside the Pacific Crest Trail Association are the Trailkeepers of Oregon, the Washington Trails Association and the Northwest Trail Alliance, which specializes in mountain bike trails. In addition to paid staff who work for various land management agencies, most popular state and local parks also enlist assistance from “friends” organizations that help maintain individual outdoor spaces.
If there’s an Oregon trail you cherish, you can all but guarantee there’s a volunteer trail crew that helps maintain it.
Susan Schen, stewardship manager with Trailkeepers of Oregon, said while the major trail projects grab all the attention – like the ongoing work clearing landslides on the Eagle Creek Trail – trail crews are constantly working on smaller projects that keep trails open to everyday hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians.
“It’s not just a matter of safety, but also of accessibility,” Schen said of maintaining the trails. “It could be extra steep, the brush and brambles could be growing out across it, water could be flowing on the trail and making big puddles that are hard to navigate. There’s a lot of basic maintenance that goes into maintaining trails each year.”
And while it would be reasonable to assume that maintaining trails is the responsibility of land management agencies who look after them, the reality is that there just isn’t enough money for agencies to do all that themselves.
Stan Hinatsu, recreation manager for the U.S. Forest Service in the Columbia River Gorge, said they’re lucky to have enough funding for one full-time trail worker and six seasonal workers, which is more than most other national forests can claim. Still, that’s not nearly enough to maintain their roughly 300 miles of trails, many of which are heavily used and open year-round.
“There’s still this big gap between the resources that we have every year and what we really need to keep trails up to standard,” Hinatsu said. “Volunteer folks are really important to us and needed to help close that gap.”
Working relationships between the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit organizations vary, he said. Some organizations receive small amounts of money from the federal agency to pay for training or volunteer coordinators, but others work strictly on a volunteer basis.
Trail volunteers almost always work for free, but most organizations offer incentives for logging hours on the trail, from free annual lands passes to branded swag. But the biggest payment seems to come in the form of personal fulfillment — a feeling that they’ve contributed to maintaining a natural space they love.
“You know somebody else is getting enjoyment out of it, so that for me is a big plus,” Hoven said. “Just having that sense of accomplishment, leaving something behind for others to use.”
That feeling seems to have drawn a good number of volunteers out to “trail parties” across the region. Fewer than a dozen people may show up at any given event, but there are hundreds of dedicated regulars who volunteer with one or several organizations, according to the Pacific Crest Trail Association and Trailkeepers of Oregon.
Amariah Jean-Baptiste, communications and data specialist for Trailkeepers of Oregon, said while the organization already has a good number of dedicated volunteers, they would love to see that number increase, and for their demographics to diversify. One strategy is explaining to people that volunteer trail work doesn’t have to mean physical labor.
While most volunteer trail work means swinging tools, cutting trees and clearing out brush, some volunteers with Trailkeepers of Oregon instead work as “trail ambassadors,” she said, sitting at trailheads to provide information on the trail system and inform hikers of Leave No Trace ethics. Other people contribute simply by donating money to the organization.
“There are little ways for people to get involved by doing things like that, if they feel like they don’t have the capacity to work on the trail themselves,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I’m one of those people that prefer just doing some light brushing myself, so I totally understand that.”
As crowds continue to increase at outdoor recreation areas, driven in large part by inexperienced hikers, there’s been a bigger push among outdoor organizations to educate hikers on how to responsibly recreate. And while some may focus on the abuse and misuse of natural spaces, there is a new push to focus on the inequity of outdoor recreation.
In Portland, there’s no outdoor area more popular or more complex than the 5,200-acre Forest Park. The Forest Park Conservancy, which helps maintain the park, has long utilized volunteer trail crews to help take care of its roughly 80 miles of trails, but the organization now has its eye on the future.
Renée Myers, executive director of the conservancy, said she would like to see a younger and more diverse group of stewards caring for the park, one that better reflects the racial makeup of the city. But many people of color have expressed a discomfort hiking in the relatively secluded forest trails, she said, and some have even recounted receiving racist comments from fellow hikers.
“Our vision is this amazing community of stewards taking care of the park that reflects the population,” Myers said. “It will take work, but if that is happening then Forest Park will be well taken care of.”
One solution could be the conservancy’s new “roaming ambassadors” program, which tasks volunteers with walking through the park to help hikers navigate the area, educate people about the rules and to help some people feel safer, simply by being present on the trail.
Trail volunteerism starts with a love of the outdoors, which for many leads naturally to a desire to help protect and maintain our local outdoor spaces. Ensuring future generations of trail volunteers requires introducing more people to our natural spaces to begin with.
“Volunteers we’ve connected to Forest Park and have a wonderful experience – they keep coming back,” Myers said. “Unless you’re actually touching and feeling and experiencing a place, you don’t necessarily make that connection.”
HOW TO VOLUNTEER
Looking to lend a hand? If you want to help maintain a specific park or area, look for a “friends” organization dedicated to that space, like Friends of Tryon Creek or Friends of the Sandy River Delta. You can also contact the agency in charge of that area, like the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department or U.S. Forest Service.
For bigger, more general volunteer trail organizations use the contact information below:
Trailkeepers of Oregon
Washington Trails Association
Pacific Crest Trail Association
Northwest Trail Alliance
This story published with permission as part of the AP Storyshare system. Salem Reporter is a contributor to this network of Oregon news outlets.
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