Aspen’s ideal job — keeping forest trails clear
It sounds like the ideal job description: Get up early, hike some of the best trails in the national forest surrounding Aspen, occasionally camp under the stars, chop wood, then repeat from May through September.
There’s no doubt it’s a great job being on the trails crew of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, said Seth Hannula, crew foreman. Lots of hikers encountered by the five-person crew watch in awe as they hack with an ax at smaller trees and branches that have fallen across the trail or tackle larger trees with a two-person cross-cut saw.
But observers don’t always see the big picture.
“Some days the mosquitos are bad. Some days it’s raining,” Hannula said. “It’s not always ideal.”
Still, he’s not complaining. He’s been in love with the job since first starting with the trails crew in 1999. Back then, the Aspen and Sopris districts were separate. The Sopris district had a 10-member trails crew. Aspen had six to eight. The districts have since combined but eroding budgets have tightened the belt on the trails crew about as tight as it can get.
“There’s been one or two seasons where I was the only one,” Hannula said.
The crew is larger this year than in recent years. Eric Tierney, Steve Petrich, Clay Westbrook and Erick Kelly make a formidable crew, Hannula said. Their first order of business was bucking fallen timber off the highest use trails — popular hiking destinations like Crater Lake, West Maroon Creek, Buckskin Pass and Conundrum, where a windstorm blew several trees down and required special attention last month. High-use mountain biking routes also get top priority, including places like Hunter Creek Valley and Basalt Mountain.
“We try to focus on the high-use areas, chasing the snow,” Hannula said.
Now, at the halfway point of the summer, they’re able to turn attention to the second tier of trails and set sights on projects that have been on back burners.
A lot of their time is spent on “tread work” — building and maintaining water bars. Rock, logs or dirt berms are used to block water from running down a trail. A path is scratched into the ground to divert water into the woods.
In places where water cannot be diverted, check dams are built to stop the water’s momentum and prevent it from creating a rut.
The trails on the high-altitude passes, such as West Maroon Pass, are particularly vulnerable to water, Hannula said. He could devote a crew all season to working on the high passes if he had that luxury.
There are 346 miles of hiking and equestrian trails in the district that need maintenance, including 289 miles in wilderness. There are an additional 175 miles of mountain biking trails and 52 miles of trails for motorized uses.
In other words, Hannula’s crew is in no danger of running out of things to do. Hannula said he loves the job because of all the places it’s taken him. He figures there are only about 6 to 8 miles of official trail he hasn’t visited in the past 18 years.
Tierney worked as a wilderness ranger in the Aspen-Sopris district last summer. The jobs are similar. The rangers carry a saw and Pulaski, a tool with an ax on one side and a heavy-duty hoe on the other, to perform trail maintenance, but they have broader responsibilities such as checking to make sure backpackers comply with regulations ranging from camping far enough from trails, rivers and lakes, and using bear-proof canisters for food and trash. In short, they’re backcountry cops.
This year, Tierney is seeing more of the forest, which is one of the things he likes about the job.
“It’s just getting to see different areas that you haven’t seen before,” he said. “And it’s good learning different skills.”
One day last week on the Anthracite Creek Trail outside of Marble, Tierney wielded a double-bladed ax he nicknamed “The Viking.” Hannula and Petrich couldn’t hide their glee as Tierney attacked decent-sized limbs and trunks with gusto to clear the trail. He made short order of all timber he encountered across the trail.
“Eric loves to chop,” they explained to observers.
Petrich ended up in Aspen on a whim this summer. He intended to get a job with the Forest Service in his native Washington state, but positions were posted earlier than he expected and he was shut out. He answered a post for a job in Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. The scenery has blown him away.
“I thought that it would be cool,” he said. “It turned out to be very cool.”
When axes won’t handle a job, the crew has a two-person cross-cut saw, a lightweight but powerful tool believed to be developed in the 14th century. With strategic use of wedges to prevent the tree trunks from binding on the saw, they can cut through large-diameter downfall in short order.
Chainsaws can’t be used in designated wilderness, where all motorized and mechanized users are prohibited, so the cross-cut saw is essential.
The budget crunch and uncertainty from year to year in the numbers of the trails crew has made volunteer assistance vital. Those groups include Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association and the Crested Butte Trail Riders Association, which spills into the Roaring Fork Valley.
Hannula and Tierney accompanied a crew from Wilderness Volunteers into Lead King Basin on Sunday for a multi-day trip to work on trails there, including the popular Geneva Lake. The volunteers actually pay to come out to work, so you know they’re dedicated, Hannula said.
He also looks forward to working each year with the crew from Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale. It’s a school ritual. Many of the faculty has done it for years, so they are good at organizing and directing 80 to 100 kids for a few days in the backcountry.
“If you can focus that energy, you can really get a lot done,” Hannula said.
But for most of the summer, it’s just the trails crew working alone. They will backpack into a secluded site when they have multiple days of work. They can get more done when they don’t spend hours hiking in and out. Still, they cover lots of miles. The 2016 crew cleared an estimated 200 miles of trails.
Crew members are lean, mean clearing machines by the end of summer.
“You definitely get stronger,” Hannula said. “We get to the point where we gobble up the miles.”
All that hiking and clearing timber requires a lot of fuel. They pack in high-protein food but it’s still sometimes tough to eat enough.
“I consider it kind of hyperphagia, like bears in the fall,” Hannula said with a laugh.
Next time you’re hiking in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness and find a freshly sawed tree trunk of mammoth proportions or are cycling Basalt Mountain and see a water bar effectively wicking runoff, bear in mind it’s not mysterious trail gnomes at work. It’s sweat off the brow of Hannula and crew that is keeping the trail clear.
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