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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Wilderness Volunteers

Air Date: Week of

People who pay to go on a Wilderness Volunteers vacation do more than just enjoy the great outdoors. They help to rebuild and restore the trails. Jyl Hoyt, from member station KBSX, spent a week with a group in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness and has this story.


KNOY: In a new report, the U.S. Forest Service is calling for changes in how people use national forests. The plan calls for limiting the use of trails when they become damaged by over-use. The Forest Service report suggests that recreation sites in need of repair be identified and funding sought for restoration. Maintaining our public recreation areas is already the goal of one organization. Wilderness Volunteers is a national service group dedicated to taking care of America's wild lands. Jyl Hoyt from member station KBSX spent a week with some of these volunteers in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness. She has this report.


HOYT: Former college football star John Sherman strides up the trail to Sawtooth Lake in south central Idaho. The 57-year-old president of Wilderness Volunteers is worried about what he sees.

SHERMAN: One of the major causes of habitat destruction or ecological destruction in wilderness areas are actually recreationists. Strangely enough, it's people who in some ways love an area to death.

HOYT: In their rush to enjoy nature, people trample down stream sides, spread invasive weeds, and take shortcuts off the trail.

SHERMAN: And what really needs to be done is, these shortcuts have to be made impassable so that folks stay off them and grasses and shrubs and things start coming back. And the erosion is controlled.

MAN: This back end is heavy.

HOYT: Twelve wilderness volunteers aged 20 to 66 are repairing the damage.

(Equipment clinks)

HOYT: They drag old, fallen trees and dead branches to the side of a steep zigzag trail, creating barriers that prevent hikers from shortcutting the path. Some of the logs the volunteers gather weigh 600 pounds and take four people to move.

MAN: Ready? One, two three.


MAN: Okay, we're not too bad.

MAN 2: This isn't too bad.

MAN: Okay, watch, the stump. We've got to have the stump clear this thing here. You guys got it?

HOYT: Because access is easy and the mountains are spectacular, hordes of hikers march through here from spring to late fall.

MAN: David, are you okay, there?

DAVID: Yeah, I'm doing great.

MAN: Okay.

HOYT: The trail weaves through grassy meadows interlaced with fast, icy streams. Beaver ponds reflect the 11,000-foot razor-edge peaks that give the Sawtooth Wilderness its name. But land managers say the entire hillside here could wear away if the erosion is not controlled.

VOLUNTEERS: (Singing) Take to captain. (Grunts) Take this log dog (Grunts) Take to captain. (Grunts) Take him I'm gone, gone, tell him I'm gone.

HOYT: The volunteers adapt an old work song to praise a Depression-era tool nicknamed the log dog. Since no chainsaws or motors are allowed in wilderness areas, the log dog is an asset.

MAN: Got it!

HOYT: It's a contoured wooden pole with a clamp that makes logs easier to lift.

MAN: Watch yourself.

MAN 2: Watch your head, make sure you have it.

MAN 3: I'm going to come over on the back side.

MAN 2: Make sure that dog is on.

HOYT: David Brooks, a manager at Microsoft in Seattle, says Wilderness Volunteers offers him an escape from his highly technological life.

BROOKS: You get caught up in office politics and beating the competition and making some deadline, and you lose track of the natural environment and how important it is to our daily life. Even to those of us who live in the city.

LANG: It's kind of like you're getting a guided tour for a lot less money. You know, you have to do some work, but it's still a guided tour, in essence, that people pay thousands of dollars for.

MAN: Swing.

HOYT: Michelle Lang waits tables in New York. She, like the other volunteers, paid $198 for the week. That includes food. It's a lot cheaper than most other service groups, plus she gains something invaluable.

LANG: It's amazing, the strength that you have within yourself, that you never realized that you had before. You know, to be able to carry a whole tree by yourself is pretty incredible.

HOYT: This Idaho trip is one of 30 that Wilderness Volunteers is sponsoring this year. There are expeditions to Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Hawaii, and six other states. There, they'll restore habitat, fix trails, and pull invasive weeds, jobs that federal workers used to do before Congress cut back budgets in recent years.

MAN: Okay, last log.

(Various voices, humming)

HOYT: In three-and-a-half days of work, volunteers hauled more than 100,000 pounds of logs, shrubs, and branches along two miles of steep trail. They call over a Forest Service employee to give a final okay for their work.

MAN: What do you think, Chris?

CHRIS: I think, officially, that looks wonderful.

MAN: Okay, you guys. Awesome. Whoo!

(Clapping; singing: "Hallelujah!")

HOYT: Now comes the fun.

MAN: Okay, where is the deepest spot? I think this is it right here. Okay.

(Shouting and splashing)

HOYT: A quick dip in an icy stream before a dinner of curried rice. A long night's sleep. Then the volunteers prepare to backpack six miles up to Alice Lake for three days of play.

MAN: It's been a great trip, so --

MAN 2: We had a great trail boss.

HOYT: For Living on Earth, I'm Jyl Hoyt in Idaho's Sawtooth Wilderness.

MAN: One more morning. One more thirty minutes.



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