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Ashland nonprofit interns help keep trails clear

Southwest Oregon has lots of wilderness hiking trails that were created a century or more ago, but have fallen into disuse because of timber blowdowns, erosion and brush invasion — and because they are so remote that people don’t go there, so the trails stop showing up on maps.

Soon, they won’t exist at all — that is, unless the Siskiyou Mountain Club gets there first and, with a crew of fewer than a dozen, spends all summer whacking brush, deepening trail benches and cutting through big trees laying across trails.

Working at $10 an hour and garnering college credit at Southern Oregon University, the crew of the independent, nonprofit, Ashland-based SMC goes in the outback, mostly into Wilderness Areas, for 10 days at a time, June 15 through Aug. 17, with four-day rests in between.

The group is hiring now, but SMC Executive Director Gabriel Howe of Ashland cautions that the class, called Minimal Impact Adventuring 452 (in SOU’s Outdoor Adventure Leadership program) screens some 50 applicants rigidly and only selects five to 10 of them for the demanding chore.

“What we do is restore and maintain primitive trails in back country,” says Howe. “We start from the inside and go out. We go where people don’t normally go, which is where a trail system is going cold and has to be resuscitated.”

After a one-week orientation and training in the outback, the crew wades in with axes, one- and two-man saws, Pulaskis, pruning saw and clippers.

“It’s amazing what they can accomplish,” he says. “They are like this machine, once they get in shape and figure out their roles. We pack into the middle of nowhere and knock it dead. It’s tough work.”

In their hiring, SMC is looking for people 18 to 25, but not necessarily those with tons of backpacking experience. It’s not necessarily a guy thing; they’ve generally hired more women than men.

So far, much of their work has centered around the Kalmiopsis Wilderness area, cleaning up trails that lead off the Wild & Scenic Rogue River up to Panther Ridge on the north side.

The 4.5 Clayhill Trail took them four days to “retread,” but, he notes, a section of the Mule Creek Trail was a complete “jackstraw tangle of madrone, live oak, tan oak and one kilometer took five rugged days of work.

When the eight-hour day is done, says Howe, they are tired, hike back to camp, make dinner, blog and write their journals, read for an hour (mostly back country adventuring books), then sleep.

Personal hazards can be extreme heat, rain and poison oak.

“It’s great knowing someone 15 years of age can now explore these treasures, someone who would not otherwise get the opportunity," Howe said. "These places make America what it is, but access to them is being swallowed up.”

Many of the trails were built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps or, much further back in time, by the early U. S. Forest Service, whose budget has shrunk in recent decades.

SMC has 250 members, a $150,000 budget, two seasonal full-time employees and gets funding from foundations, USFS and, the Oregon Recreational Trails Program, which funnels in federal dollars from the gasoline tax.

“What we’re doing helps hikers and also the environment, because if you look at the map, the trails we work on are there," Howe said. "We’re reviving the interior trail system that no one else is taking care of and if we don’t do it, it would be lost, removed from the map and from the management plan and become ghost trails.” 

Pointing to threadlike trails of dots on his big USFS map, Howe says, “We’re leaving a legacy for young people who will be able to say, ‘I got off my cell phone and went hiking way in the outback.’”

For membership and financial support, contact Gabriel Howe, gabe@siskiyoumountainclub.org, 541-708-2056.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.