Trail Fix: The Challenge of Keeping Hiking Trails Boot-Ready

by Darrin Gunkel

Damage from a rough winter, a growing backlog of maintenance, and an increase in use have land managers scrambling to keep hiking trails open and safe.

Fixing Hamilton Mountain

They knew it was going to be a big job. An 80-foot Doug Fir standing by the Hamilton Mountain trail, in Beacon Rock State Park, had toppled, wiping out a 20-foot section of tread on a steep slope. “There was nothing left to rebuild the trail on, so we had to build a crib wall,” said Tom Griffith, a volunteer trail crew leader with Washington Trails Association (WTA). “So state parks workers cut two 20-foot sections of log from the tree that fell. We had to peel the bark so it wouldn’t rot later and use grip hoists to haul the sections into place,” building a shelf along the slope for the new trail to follow. Volunteers then notched the logs to place deadmen, short sections of log perpendicular to the crib wall, to form a stable base on which they could rebuild the trail surface.

Before they could begin all the construction work, the crew had to dig out and cut up the massive root ball that had done much of the damage. It took more than a day, working in the rain and mud on a steep slope. Then, they had to deal with the Spear.

The Spear was a 20-foot section of trunk from the top of another fir, a few yards beyond the slide, that snapped off, plunged straight down, and jammed vertically into the trail. “It was stuck three feet deep,” said Gabe Smith, another WTA volunteer and crew leader who worked on Hamilton Mountain. The remaining 15 feet of trunk, standing straight out of the trail, was supported by a branch that had survived the fall. They secured the trunk with steel cables and cut the branch, lowering the Spear enough so Smith could get at it safely with a cross-cut saw—WTA crews work only with hand tools. “It got pretty spooky working under that,” Smith said.

And before all that, there were the logistics. Getting all the construction materials up the steep trail presented its own special challenges. “It’s pretty difficult to drive mechanical toter up that trail. We had a toter go off and almost end up in a creek,” said Ryan Ojerio, WTA’s Southwest Regional Manager. “It could have been a really expensive accident. So Washington State Parks coordinated a Larch Mountain Correctional crew (inmates) to come out and hand carry pretty large logs all the way up there as well as a bunch of our heavy tools. Sledge hammer, rock bar, grip hoist, 150-foot five-eighths-inch cable that weighs almost 60 pounds.”

Then there’s scheduling. WTA work parties, somewhere around 80 a year in Southwest Washington, are booked far in advance. So Ryan relies on a rapid response team of experienced volunteers, Griffith and Smith among them, a sort of trail work ninja force that can drop everything for a week and tackle a project the size of Hamilton. Even then, Ryan had to coordinate three separate days of site visits to scout the trail with park officials and trail crew leads before getting all the equipment and crew in place.

There were easier ways to get the trail open. “We thought about just cleaning up so people could get by,” said Ojerio, “But that might actually have made it harder to fix if the site got more messed up by people walking across it. Then it’s a liability concern.” In the end, it took a crew of eight volunteers more than a week to clean up the mess and build the new trail infrastructure. Including lead time, the Hamilton Mountain trail re-opened just three weeks after the damage was reported.

“Three weeks—and that was pretty rushed,” said Ojerio. “For something of that scope, it was about as fast as anybody could go, I imagine, short of having a paid crew just hanging out waiting for work to drop in their lap. But I think those days are over for public land managers.”

Fixing the Mounting Backlog 

Indeed, the days of fully staffed public lands, for the time being, are a thing of the past. It’s estimated that to properly run Mt. Hood National forest, a staff of 800 is needed. Currently, there are just 200 employees on the payroll. More and more, the responsibility of keeping trails open and safe is in the hands of the their most ardent users: members of groups like the WTA, the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Trailkeepers of Oregon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, the Cape Horn Conservancy, the Klickitat Trail Conservancy, and of course, the Mazamas.

In 2016, 5,000 Pacific Northwest trail volunteers put in a combined 230,000 hours of maintenance on 24,000 miles of federal land trails in Washington and Oregon. In other words, volunteers performed half of the region’s trail work. And those figures don’t include state and private lands: those three weeks of effort WTA staff and volunteers put in at Hamilton Mountain aren’t included in those stats. Nationally, volunteers put in 1.4 million hours—labor valued at 31.6 million dollars. That said, only a quarter of the trails are up to the Forest Service’s safety, recreation, and sustainability standards.
And that number may get smaller still, according to Mazama Stewardship and Advocacy Manager Adam Baylor. “Recent storms, and this past winter, are signs of things to come,” said Baylor. “And if we don’t deal with the backlogs, winters like this will do even more damage.” With so many ready and eager volunteers and organizations, there’s no lack of enthusiasm for trail maintenance. The challenge is putting all that energy to work efficiently. Baylor would like to see a full time volunteer manager to coordinate groups.

That sort of position doesn’t seem likely under current federal management, but there are efforts to increase efficiency in other ways and put resources where they’re needed most. Recognizing how key volunteer groups will be in trail management, Congress enacted the National Forest System (NFS) Trails Stewardship Act of 2016. It sets a goal of doubling the amount of trail maintenance volunteers do over the next five years. To zero in further on the problem, in March of this year, the National Forest Service began efforts to concentrate help where it will be needed most. Officials are asking for public input in deciding where and how to best direct volunteer efforts. The NFS wants to select between 9 and 15 areas around the country that need the most attention. The Mazamas have stepped up with a proposal to combine the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, and Mt. Hood National Forest as a single “priority area” under the act.

Furthermore, a proposed Area Trail Stewardship Plan would cover the priority area the Mazamas requested. The idea is to find gains in efficiency by better coordinating the wide range of groups that do work in the Gifford Pinchot, Gorge, and Mt. Hood areas. The plan calls for a GP-Gorge-Hood Joint Stewardship Shop that would help groups with project prioritization, volunteer management, and resource sharing. The proposed Shop would seek to develop an online clearinghouse for trails and identify new funding sources such as cost-share agreements, matching grants, and stewardship credits.

The challenges are complex. Government bureaucracy is notoriously stubborn. But the key players, especially the ones on the ground, forge ahead undaunted. For his part, Tom Griffith looks forward to keeping busy on the trails, “The weather’s never that bad. This winter was rough, but it’s job security! Otherwise I’d just been sitting at home reading a book. The people you work with are great—I learn something new every time—and you’re outdoors.”

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