Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers: Fixing the outdoors, one trail at a time |

Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers: Fixing the outdoors, one trail at a time

Aaron Hedge
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Rustin Gudim/Aspen Times WeeklyDavid Hamilton, executive director of Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, second from left, checks over the multitude of tools before a recent evening project on the Ajax Trail near Aspen.

ASPEN – Anticipating the evening’s trail work next to the knotted wood fencing that outlines Koch Park, David Hamilton took a quick break from unloading trail maintenance tools from a minivan to admire Aspen Mountain.

“It’s one of the only trails in Aspen that doesn’t go straight up and down,” he said of Ajax Trail, which exits the west end of the park and then cuts back across the ski trails that lie in vertical stripes across the mountain.

He was there to direct a crew of volunteer trail workers on where the 8-year-old trail needed the most TLC: the lengths that had become overgrown with oak brush and other plants that line it.

Hamilton turned back to unloading some 80 tools, which included the regulars: pulaskis, shovels, saws and tree loppers, while the smaller-than-usual group of about 15 volunteers, mostly from Aspen and Snowmass Village, began to show up.

On the Thursday prior to this one, about 25 people had shown up – also a small turnout for Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, said Hamilton, who leads the 15-year-old organization that fixes and maintains valley trails that often go overlooked by governmental agencies.

Average turnout for an RFOV project – most of which last a full workday – typically varies between 45 and 60 people. Hamilton said some Saturday projects have garnered more than 80 people. But the Ajax Trail project was a little different.

For about three hours every Thursday evening in July, the organization has assaulted Ajax Trail with the tools to fix whatever might be wrong: cutting overgrown weeds; knocking down “insloped” sections of the path where rainwater can puddle, softening the tread; and cutting branches from protruding tree roots.

It’s part of an intensified effort this summer in the upper Roaring Fork Valley that will include trails on several mountains near Aspen, according to the RFOV website.

On Smuggler Mountain, crews are building new trail segments and turning a double-track road into a single-track trail by planting new trees and shrubs in one track and doing maintenance work in the other.

Earlier this month, RFOV partnered with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative on a three-day project on Pyramid Peak to continue an initiative to restore the trails on the battered fourteener, mostly building new staircases.

Near American Lake, RFOV plans to improve drainage to avoid erosion of the popular trail.

And on Basalt Mountain, crews worked this month to repair deep ruts on the trails there.

Charlie Eckart, a crew leader with the nonprofit, said he is leading crews on more than two or three initiatives, which is his average every year.

“We’ve had a predominance of projects in the upper valley,” he said.

The Ajax Trail effort is part of a new initiative to expand RFOV’s volunteer base through evening programs.

In the most recent RFOV newsletter, which is released on its website a few times a year and printed on paper when the non-profit has the money, Amy Capron, chair of RFOV’s governing board, expressed optimism for the evening projects. They were the only projects in a number of new RFOV initiatives resilient enough to withstand the economic downturn, which had many nonprofits and businesses reeling during 2009.

But over the next year, Hamilton is confident that it will succeed in expanding its volunteer base.

As the economy begins to recover, RFOV hopes to foster a youth program that will bring in youngsters as soon as they are old enough to use a hand tool. Hamilton plans to hire a full-time employee to spearhead that effort next year. He also hopes to hire a seasonal trail coordinator to free up some of Hamilton’s time, so he can apply for more grants and expand the nonprofit’s $175,000 budget.

RFOV now has two and a half full-time paid positions. The low-overhead organization operates strictly from donations and government and private grants; that money has paid the salaries for the small staff, and has bought the large number of tools filling RFOV’s makeshift work shed. It also pays for pizza and beer for the volunteers after a hard day of swinging pulaskis, as well as a new cost: rent.

Hamilton said RFOV’s landlord had to start charging for its once-free Basalt office space, which RFOV has occupied since 2001, as the economy tanked two years ago.

The $850 rent check Hamilton writes each month is the nonprofit’s third largest expense after salaries for Hamilton, development director Karin Teague and administrative assistant Trina Ortega.

The cost of the actual projects, though, remains stable, at an average of $9,000 for a month-long campaign to fix or extend a trail. But some initiatives, like a pending cooperative effort to fix the Hanging Lake trail off Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon, one of the most popular hikes in Colorado, will cost around $200,000, Hamilton said.

RFOV will help with that project, but the U.S. Forest Service will pay for most of the work.

That’s where the importance of RFOV lies, Hamilton said. While taxpayer-funded agencies like the Forest Service have the money to launch large trail projects, they don’t have nearly enough manpower. Austin Weiss, the Aspen Parks Department’s trails coordinator for the last nine years, said he built about a third of a mile of the Ajax Trail – his favorite in Aspen – in 2001 by himself. The city has a dedicated staff for fixing trails, Weiss said, but it’s clear that much would not get done without RFOV.

Charlie Eckart gathered his portion of the volunteer crew for Thursday evening’s hike to the middle of Ajax Trail, handing out tools, telling them what they’d be doing and warning of potential fatigue and dehydration.

He methodically picked out the necessary tools.

“Everyone should bring a pair of loppers,” said Eckart, who has volunteered with RFOV for a decade and a half. Only a few of the bigger tools were needed, he added, since this wouldn’t be an especially difficult trail-maintenance session. Two shovels; two McLeods, a rake-like grading tool; a saw; and two pulaskis were good enough. Still, though, attention to detail was paramount in fixing this trail.

During the work that evening, he stressed the importance of getting even the smallest plants out of the way.

“Those are gonna be big bushes next year,” he said, pointing at tiny clumps of new Gambel oak growth.

Eckart, a longtime mountain biking and hiking enthusiast, began volunteering in the late 1990s and eventually became one of RFOV’s 25 to 35 crew leaders.

“The rest is history,” he said while hacking at some oak brush on the Ajax Trail just west of the Norway ski run.

For Eckart, it was just another day in the campaign to improve trails, but it was clear at the beginning of the evening that he spends more time on the trail than most people. While doing trail work in 1980 for Yosemite National Park, Eckart noticed a local nonprofit similar to RFOV, “strong, buff guys” invading the trails with tools to improve them.

“I was always enamored with the … energy they put into trail projects,” he said.

So when he started volunteering for RFOV, he was compelled to become heavily involved.

He is a member of two of the non-profit’s six committees – Project Selection and the Town-to-Town Tour – as well as a member of the trail project advisory board for Aspen City Council.

Many of RFOV’s volunteers are diehards like Eckart, but not all. All the work requires, Hamilton said, is a passion for the trails.

Fifteen years ago, Hamilton started working for Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, doing trail projects on the Western Slope.

As he worked his way through the area, he saw an increasing need for localized efforts in the Roaring Fork Valley. Without any tools or marketing resources, Hamilton partnered with several other hiking buffs to create RFOV, a nonprofit dedicated to independent trail projects, but also willing to work with government agencies and trail crews.

It was a product of similar projects that had begun in the Appalachian Mountains and spread in the 1980s and ’90s across the country from the Cascades in Washington to the Flathead Mountains in Montana.

“It’s a lineage we’re proud to be associated with,” Hamilton said.

Since its inception, RFOV has hosted more than 12,000 volunteers and performs what Hamilton estimates to be several million dollars in trail maintenance every year – what he calls the “GNP” of the organization. Without RFOV, government agencies would likely have to pay full-time employees some $22 per hour to maintain and fix public trails. And the small staffs of those agencies are limited in the trail mileage they can handle.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re important, because we can do this by hand,” said Teague, who is charged with bringing in donations from the surrounding area.

RFOV is a home-grown, grassroots organization with strong support from the valley’s hiking and bicycling community, Hamilton said. It has a broad network of regular and semi-regular volunteers, as well as steady and loyal income sources, including most of the valley’s local governments. It also uses funds from private businesses large and small, including Wells Fargo Bank and Clark’s Market.

But that doesn’t remove the need for the organization to market itself to volunteers.

“A lot of people think we have all the volunteers on call, and it’s not really like that,” Hamilton said.

At the end of workdays, he hands out fliers for the next event, hoping that volunteers will give the fliers to friends and family and hang them on doors around town.

This practice brings in new volunteers each time, he said, adding that about half of the volunteers at each workday have never picked up an RFOV tool before.

Another mechanism in this marketing effort is the Town-to-Town Tour, an annual fundraising event that invites cross-country skiers to network and donate. During the last one in 2008, about 360 skiers made their way down the Rio Grande Trail from Aspen to Basalt. In 2009, the economy barred the tour from happening, but Hamilton hopes the 2011 event will be the biggest yet.

Despite the low volunteer turnout at the recent Ajax Trail workday, Eckart returned to Koch Park with his head high, after his team had cleared overhanging brush from about 600 feet of path.

Without RFOV’s ability to organize large-scale projects through its volunteer base, those short-term but voluminous accomplishments would not be possible, Weiss said. His full-time staff of two trail maintenance workers would be stretched beyond their limits.

“It would take them three weeks to get done what [RFOV] does in a night,” Weiss said.

But it’s not the accolades from the Parks Department and other RFOV partners that keep people like Eckart on the trail.

“When you work on a trail, when you put your sweat and blood into a trail, you become vested in it,” Eckart said. “… You know every rock and bush along that stretch.”

Looking up at the sections of trail his crew had just pruned, Eckart said: “When we’re done with this, it’s gonna be a fun trail – it’s not steep; it’s not technical.”