Volunteer’s $400,000 gift funds trail projects across Colorado
August 26, 2018
Trail work is hard work. Folks who trek the trails around Summit may not know how much time, energy and resources go in to building these seemingly simple dirt paths. Given there isn't a whole lot of money to go around for these projects, volunteers are critically needed to donate their time and labor to building and maintaining trails.
On the weekend of Aug. 11, Front Range-based Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado collaborated with the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District and the U.S. Forest Service to build a new trail extension from the Upper Salt Lick Trail in Silverthorne.
John Birkey, a technical adviser for VOC, said the new spur will link the Upper Salt Lick with existing trails and networks, including a trail that goes to Lily Pad Lake. The new path also will divert a mountain bike trail away from wilderness and onto the existing trail network.
Doozie Martin, program manager for FDRD, estimated that the 65 volunteers worked 400 combined hours over the mid-August weekend to build more than 3,000 feet of new trail. Working six-hour shifts and camping overnight on the soccer field at Arctic Placer Park, they worked tirelessly to contribute something back to the outdoors they love so much.
The project was supposed to build all 4,000 feet of the trail, but the group ran out of time for the weekend as it got bogged down at certain points. Different sections can be challenging to build on, requiring more work than others.
"Every section is different depending on terrain," said Forest Service wilderness and trails manager Cindy Ebbert. "Some go a lot faster than others."
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A stubborn root or deeply embedded tree stump, for example, can take up to half an hour or more to clear from the trail. Several of these stumps needed to be removed, as they create hazards in the trail and invite plant growth and other problems that require more upkeep and maintenance.
Ebbert estimated that each volunteer's time was worth about $24 an hour, meaning the VOC group did about $10,000 worth of work for free. Compare that value with the $400 that VOC Seasonal Project Manager Jackie Curry said it cost to feed and shelter the group for the weekend.
Those volunteer hours don't include the background work already done, such as surveying, clearing crews for trees and brush, or Rocky Mountain Youth Corps crews brought in to build a new plank bridge across swamp leading to the trail.
As this trail was being built along the side of a hill, numerous technical challenges need to be accounted for. Birkey said that the VOC has a four-step process to build hillside trails to avoid particular engineering problems related to rainfall.
The first step involves creating a line along the top of the trail to designate the uphill side of the trail, followed by carving out of a vertical backslope and level tread that constitutes the actual trail, forming an L shape on the side of the hill.
The third step involves smoothing out the gradient on the backslope, as leaving a straight-up backslope leads to mini-waterfalls that erode the trail below it. The last step involves creating an "outslope" on the downhill side of the trail, with the bottom edge rounded out at a "critical point" to allow water to easily flow down the hill after it washes across the trail. Without this outslope, water can accumulate on the trail, turning it into a boggy trench, ruining it.
Another special aspect of this particular project was how it was funded. Aside from volunteer hours, it costs about $20,000 for a trail project like this. That includes creating the access bridge, the background clearing and surveying work mentioned earlier, and paying staff members to plan and supervise the work. For this project, money came from a trust created by Mike O'Brien, a long-time VOC volunteer who died from a brain tumor seven years ago.
O'Brien, an avid mountain biker, bequeathed about $400,000 to VOC for trail projects. If you do a web search for "Mike O'Brien memorial project," you'll find many projects completed or planned because of his gift to the public, including the Upper Salt Lick extension.
Among the volunteers working this project was 78-year-old Clint Heiple, a long-time friend of O'Brien's who administers his trust.
Heiple said that O'Brien's goal was to help people access public land when he volunteered, and to ensure that future generations would find the same joy walking, hiking and biking on the trails he loved. The VOC seemed to be the best place for that wish to be fulfilled.
"The VOC does great work, and with volunteers we get the most bang for the buck," Heiple said.
O'Brien's trust typically funds three VOC projects a year in the years since he died. As trustee and one of O'Brien's best friends, Heiple considers it an almost sacred duty to make sure he helps fulfill O'Brien's last wishes.
"We did two or three VOC projects a year for about 20 years, until he died," Heiple said. "We skied together, we biked together. He was one of my best friends and I miss him."
When asked what he thinks his old friend would have thought about how VOC volunteers gave up their free time to come to Summit and put their backs into these trail projects, Heiple said O'Brien would have approved heartily.
"This is just wonderful, this is exactly what he would have wanted," Heiple said. "The land agencies just don't have the money to do all this stuff, so for so many volunteers to come out and help is great. If we build good trails, people will stay on it and out of the wilderness, so it helps both people and the environment."