Who maintains the trails? You do.
Jon Chapman stops about a half-mile up Difficult Creek to saw a log that is covering the path. After clearing that part of the trail he continues on, kicking branches aside and picking up trash as he goes.
On the way down, a couple thanks him for helping out with the disorderly trail. He smiles and makes small talk. Chapman wears a U.S. Forest Service uniform, enforces Forest Service rules, and works 40 hours a week – but doesn’t get paid. “I work for fun, not for money,” says the 71-year-old Chapman. “I can’t be idle, I have to be doing something – might as well be productive.”About six months a year, Chapman clears trails, does office work, facilitates other volunteers and generally helps out while living in a redesigned bus parked behind the Forest Service office in Aspen. This is Chapman’s 13th summer “working” for the Forest Service and 50th year in the Aspen area.
Chapman is an unusual volunteer in a valley of unusual volunteers. In all, the trail system surrounding Aspen is among the area’s most significant community volunteer effort, with hundreds of volunteers working thousands upon thousands of volunteer days every summer. “Trails do need to be maintained,” says David Hamilton, executive director of Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers. “It doesn’t happen magically. Some trails maybe haven’t seen a lot of maintenance. We help take the burden off the Forest Service because they’re so understaffed.”Officials estimate there are 1,000 miles of trail between Rifle and Aspen; there are around 500 miles of trail in the Aspen/Sopris Ranger District alone. It is too much for the Forest Service to maintain without a lot of help. “The region is really stepping up on volunteerism,” says Martha Moran, spokeswoman for the Aspen/Sopris Ranger District. “This is a good place. It draws folks in who really care. It’s been my passion since I’ve been in the Forest Service. When you see these volunteers that dedicate all that time on the ground and share their learning, it makes my job worth it.”It’s no secret that the Bush administration has steadily cut funding to the Forest Service in past years, nor is it a surprise that much of the Forest Service’s money remains in Washington, D.C.
Thus, there are fewer “boots on the ground,” as Chapman put it. So the Forest Service partners with local groups like Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, Forest Conservancy, Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, Independence Pass Foundation and others to have either low-paid interns or volunteers help keep the trails clean and safe. “If we didn’t have the volunteers, we’d see our resources degrading at a pretty high level,” says Moran. The two biggest volunteer corps are Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, through which roughly 1,200 volunteer days are contributed per season, and Forest Conservancy, where the estimate is at 1,375 volunteer days. Plus, the conservancy now handles many jobs that are essential to the Forest Service.
“Volunteer wilderness rangers are the eyes and ears of the Forest Service and ensure that our forest is protected,” says Marcia Johnson, executive director of the Forest Conservancy. “Volunteers on the trails [in 2006] encountered more than 20,000 visitors, dismantled 55 illegal fire rings, performed countless minor trail-maintenance repairs and collected valuable forest data.”You love the outdoors? How much?Getting people to volunteer and wondering why more people don’t volunteer preoccupies folks like Johnson, Moran and Hamilton.They know people move to the Aspen area because of the outdoors, and they also know many have a good deal of free time. On the other hand, there’s so much to do and so many places to volunteer in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We get anywhere from 30 to 80 people for a volunteer day,” Hamilton says of the one-day trail blitzes his organization puts on, with the next being June 23 on Hunter Creek-area trails. “I always think that’s such as small fraction of the people we could get. If everybody who loves and uses our trails came out and volunteered for a day, we’d get a lot more done.”And then there are people like Chapman, who love the outdoors and want to be useful. They also get to be “the faces of the forest,” explains Chapman.Forest Conservancy volunteers, acting as ambassadors and wilderness rangers, are in full uniform and can enforce rules just as a Forest Service ranger would. The 85 volunteers acting in those positions this summer represents an 85 percent increase since the first year of the conservancy in 2001, and a 25 percent increase over last year. “I was talking to my colleagues in Leadville, and they say they really have a hard time getting folks,” Moran says. “The region is really stepping up on this.”
Everyone knows the spots – Conundrum Hot Springs, Crater Lake, the Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, Independence Pass – where groups of people gather. Those places need more attention than your average trail. The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative steps up to the plate for those mountains that reach over 14,000 feet.”People go straight up and straight down in the same spot, and you loose the vegetation cover,” says Sarah Gorecki, associate director of the nonprofit initiative. “Until that gets stabilized you have an erosion gully.”Locally, a paid crew has spent the last few summers working on Pyramid Peak and in the Maroon Bells area. This summer, they will be joined for a week by a 10-person volunteer crew made up of locals, as well as a few adopt-a-peak volunteer groups, including one from Rifle High School. “Last year we had no problem recruiting,” Gorecki says, of getting people to help from the valley. “We had waiting lists on every project. They filled up faster than any project I know of. It’s because it’s so incredibly beautiful. It’s a great place to go out and have an amazing volunteer experience.”The Independence Pass Foundation, which focuses on upkeep of the Independence Pass area, also works with unpaid crews, including a team of inmates from the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. Last summer and fall the crew planted 1,900 lodgepole seedlings, cleaned up the Braille and Discovery trails, and did fix-up work at Upper Lost Man Loop Trail and at Independence Ghost Town. “The guys are young and strong, they’re good workers,” says Chapman, who goes out with the crew on a regular basis during late August and September as a facilitator for the Forest Service. “I’m sure it’s better than being in Buena Vista behind bars all day.”
If there is a perfect byproduct of volunteering, it’s that of ownership over the trail or area cleaned up.Just ask Chapman if the truck he drives belongs to him or to the Forest Service: “It belongs to you and 300 million other people,” he’ll answer. At Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, the adopt-a-trail program creates a similar sense of ownership as groups are responsible for certain sections of land. For example, the Aspen Cycling Club has been doing maintenance on the Sunnyside and Government trails since 1996.”Our volunteers are meeting the challenge of bridging the gap between what services, staff and programs the Forest Service can afford to provide and what is needed by the public,” Johnson says. “As champions of our forest, our volunteer corps is spreading the word that our forest lands need the public’s help to safeguard its future.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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