As hikers in the Northwest, we enjoy the benefit of having literally thousands of miles of trails to explore. We are blessed with a trail system that delivers us to some of the most remote, diverse, and awe-inspiring locations to be found anywhere. Think of incredible trails like Angel’s Rest or the North Wildwood Trail. While some of these paths have been around for a century or more, others were constructed as recently as last week. Trails require thoughtful planning, research, and hard work to become reality. And just as much work is required to keep them maintained and usable.
With the government constantly churning through the unenviable task of allocating tax dollars, some programs are bound to receive less funding than they might have in the past. Unfortunately, the resources needed to keep our trails in proper working order have dwindled considerably. According to Ryan Ojerio, southwest regional manager for the Washington Trails Association, “WTA's first trail work party was nearly 21 years ago. Since then volunteers with WTA and many other organizations have been doing an increasing amount of the trail maintenance on public lands as many agencies budgets have declined, “says Ojerio. “At some state parks in Washington volunteers do almost all of the maintenance. In other places like the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area, the agency still has funding to hire seasonal staff to do trail work. But they all have to prioritize the most heavily used sites like campgrounds, picnic areas and other developed facilities. So often the backcountry trails are the lowest priority when budgets are tight.”
Trail work parties are becoming increasingly important in the Northwest. Along with the Washington Trails Association (WTA) the Trailkeepers of Oregon (TKO) and other agencies are gathering volunteers on a regular basis to go out and maintain, reconstruct, or occasionally reroute local trails.
These organizations require no experience, just a willingness to help, making it easy for anybody to get involved. “ Our volunteer leaders provide instruction and tools and we strive to involve everyone in the project and teach them the skills they need as they go. Nearly all the projects we do can be done with hand tools that anyone can use without extensive training or certification,” says Ojerio. “We keep our group size small usually with just a dozen or so people on a crew, our leaders can spend time giving new volunteers individual attention as they learn new tools and techniques.”
He continues: “Anyone can participate in a trail work party. We encourage people to work at a pace that suits them. Being safe and having fun are our fist priorities and when that happens the work takes care of itself. Some work parties involve longer hikes to get to the project site, or the nature of the project can be more strenuous so I encourage prospective volunteers to read the details in the agenda before signing up, especially if they are new to trail work. Volunteering on trail is a great way to keep your mind and body active, especially as we have events scheduled all throughout the rainy season.”
Trail work parties aren’t just for adults either. In fact youth under 18 put in more than 15,000 hours volunteering with WTA last year. “ Most of the youth participants are 10 and up, but I've had a great time digging trail with 6 and 7 year olds. WTA has a range of specific youth work parties from our half-day Saturdays to volunteer vacations for teens 14-18 years old,” says Ojerio.
“If you're not sure about bringing your child to a work party, contact the volunteer coordinator and ask about the nature of the project, the worksite and hike in before you sign up. When you bring your child out into the woods, set them up for a good time with the right clothing, properly fitted work gloves, hot drinks on colder days and lots of yummy snacks.”
Constructing, maintaining, and restoring our trails is important work. We are in a unique position to be able to preserve them for ourselves, others, and future generations. There are numerous local and national organizations that lead work parties all the time. All you need to do is contact them. At the end of a hard day’s work, there’s a sense of pride that you gave something back to the great outdoors.