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Trail crew volunteers wanted – and needed

Jim Icenbice and Ron Stewart of the High Desert Trail Riders pack in supplies for Forest Service trail crews in 2017. Photo by Lee Juillerat
Lee Juillerat photoVolunteers from the Klamath Trails Alliance and Basin Outdoor Group clear a trail in the national forest.

Interested in getting out on wilderness trails this summer?

Anthony Benedetti, who oversees the trails program for wilderness areas in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, and Angie Panter, who has a similar job for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, are looking for volunteers to help with clearing and maintaining trails.

Panter and Benedetti often work cooperatively because many of their trails in the high Cascades, including the Sky Lakes Wilderness, overlap. In recent years, overnight trail clearing projects have been coordinated.

“We couldn’t do it without them. They’re a big help,” Panter said of people and groups that have helped.

“I’m trying to get help for trail work,” Benedetti said, noting he is eager to recruit people who can assist for a day or overnights. “Basically, I’m trying to get the word out. Even if it’s one person to walk the trail with me for safety reasons.”

A change in staffing program means the national forests will not have a dedicated staff of seasonal employees to work on clearing trails for the 2021 season. Instead, the Forest Service is hiring permanent seasonal workers who will handle various projects, with the bulk of the work being timber related, while other responsibilities, in order of priority, include fuels and fire management, recreation and trail maintenance.

“It’s not going to keep us from getting work done, but we won’t be able to do as much,” Benedetti said.

“We’ll do what we have to do,” said Panter.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Benedetti, who is based in Klamath Falls, oversees 100 miles of trails in the Sky Lakes, Mountain Lakes and Gearhart Mountain wilderness areas, plus a small portion of the Mount Thielsen Wilderness Area. That mileage figure can be deceptive, because many times the designated wildernesses are reached by trails outside the wilderness.

Panter, based in Prospect, has a smaller region focused mainly on the Sky Lakes Wilderness and feeder trails outside the wilderness. She often works in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management.

“We help on their trails, and they help us on ours,” she said.

In 2020, Benedetti had a crew of three seasonal employees who cleared and reopened unusually large blocks of trails. In recent years, trail work has been challenging on both the Fremont-Winema and Rogue River-Siskiyou because many trails were blocked by massive amounts of fallen trees following wildfires.

Trail clearing and maintenance work normally begins in mid or late May, depending on snow conditions. Both Panter and Benedetti emphasize that volunteers can assist for a day or multiple days, with the option of camping overnight near a trailhead or pack-supported in the backcountry.

As in past years, providing that pack support will be members of the High Desert Trail Riders Backcountry Horsemen.

“We enjoy the backcountry, so we’re trying to give back,” said Betty Applebaker, president and a long-time High Desert Trail Riders member who has frequently helped pack in saws, food and other supplies for trail crews on horses and mules.

“We want to get back there, too,” echoed Ron Stewart, another Trail Rider. Because they ride horseback and can cover more miles than a hiker, “We see stuff the average person doesn’t see. When we’re out there, it’s peaceful.”

Benedetti credits the group with making trail work possible. Among last year’s cooperative efforts was trail work in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” he said. “They can carry our food and water, take in signs.”

“They silently get it done,” agrees Panter.

“We can make things happen. We’re doing good,” Stewart said.

The Trail Riders and Benedetti have already scheduled three pack-supported trail work overnights, two in August and another in September. Major goals this year include clearing the trail from the Sevenmile Trailhead to the Pacific Crest Trail to Ranger Spring in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, and finishing trail work in the Gearhart Mountain Wilderness. Multi-day trail clearing events are typically coordinated by both forests with the Pacific Crest Trail Association and other groups.

Panter has also frequently enlisted projects with the PCTA and the Siskiyou Mountain Club. She plans to reach out to others, including snowmobile and other horse groups, along with individuals.

“I plan to contact anybody who has volunteered in the past to do it again,” Panter said. “You learn all these skills and meet people who like to do the same thing.”

Benedetti has also contacted the Klamath Basin Outdoor Group, which helped clear brush on a portion of the Cherry Creek Trail last summer and has provided volunteers other years, about assisting on day or overnight outings this summer.

For many years, members of the Klamath Trails Alliance have taken on volunteer duties on trails in and outside the Sky Lakes Wilderness. Because of the need for more help, Benedetti is eager to meet with other groups or individuals.

It’s not always necessary to work with Benedetti or Panter as a member of an organized group. Individually or as group members, early season volunteers can be especially helpful by hiking trails and making reports, for example, on the number of downed trees and, if necessary, use tape measures to report on the average diameter and the largest diameter of fallen trees.

“That’s gold to us,” Benedetti said, noting the information assists in determining whether crews can clear trails with hand saws or require two-person crosscut saws.

Volunteers working with Benedetti do not require certification to operate chainsaws, which cannot be used in designated wilderness areas, but will be required to sign volunteer agreements. He is also awaiting directions for COVID-19 protocol. Benedetti normally spends two or three days a week in the field.

For information, contact Panter at angela.panter.usda.gov, or Benedetti at 541-885-3440 or anthony.benedetti@usda.gov.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.