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For Jerry Inman, a member of the Klamath Trails Alliance, the turning point came five years ago when he was hiking along a poorly maintained backcountry trail. “It was such a big mess,” he remembers thinking. “I decided to see if I could whittle away at it.”

Kelly Behr, a member of the High Desert Trail Riders chapter of Back Country Horseman, was horse packing when she wondered, “Who in the world clears these trails?”

For Bill Wood, a volunteer with Klamath Wing Watchers and the Klamath Trails Alliance, the decision to help clear trails was simply, “Because I hike.”

Wood, Behr and Inman are among the volunteers who have donated thousands of hours and labor to help clear backcountry trails. Following a wet, windy winter that caused unprecedented levels of fallen trees, branches, brush and other debris, the challenge of opening trails in the Southern Oregon and far Northern California high country this year has been daunting. And, because the Fremont-Winema National Forest employs only two summer seasonal wilderness rangers, the need for volunteers has never been greater.

That’s why people like Inman, Behr and Wood are critical.

“The biggest reward I get from my job is working alongside our partners,” says Anthony Benedetti, the Fremont-Winema’s outdoor recreation specialist. “I do it for the camaraderie, for Molly and Amanda, and for the volunteers.”

Wilderness rules

Molly Johnson and Amanda Felton are this summer’s two Fremont-Winema seasonal employees. They began working in mid-May to open a portion of the Forest’s hundreds of miles of backcountry trails. They’re limited to using handsaws and cross-cut saws in designated wilderness areas, including Sky Lakes, Mountain Lakes and Gearhart Mountain.

Outside wilderness areas, they’re allowed to use chainsaws, which speeds the process of clearing trails and, just as importantly, roads leading to trailheads. As Benedetti notes, it took 90 days just to open roads connecting with trails.

Forest Service fire, hot shot and engine crews have also assisted. But Benedetti says the role of volunteers is immeasurable. Some — like John and Karen Poole — donate time as individuals. Others, through the Klamath Trails Alliance, Pacific Crest Trail Association and the High Desert Trail Riders chapter of Back Country Horsemen, provide time and labor to open trails that otherwise would be impassible.

Even with the help, Benedetti estimates it will be three to five seasons before trails are brought up to standard. Along with the impacts of the winter of 2015-16, he says annual maintenance fell behind for several years, partially because of reduced budgets for recreation programs. He’s invigorated by help from volunteers, a sentiment shared by Felton and Johnson.

Helping hands

“It’s been so nice to have so many people helping,” says Felton, 29, who’s wrapping up her second year on the trail crew. She offers special praise for the Back Country Horsemen who pack in gear, food and heavy specialized equipment when she, Johnson, Benedetti and occasional others spend two or three nights at wilderness camps. “That’s the biggest thing — we have so many people helping us.”

Compared to last year, Felton says this year’s challenge has been daunting, noting, “It’s kind of a mess. Just massive amounts of small stuff. It’s more of an obstacle course.”

“You can’t hike the trails until you log them out,” echoes Johnson, 45, who is on her first season on the Fremont-Winema but has extensive trail work experience in the Bend area.

‘What can I do?’

Johnson says her interest in trail work, especially in wildernesses, began as a hiker and backpacker who has seen the impacts of use and wondered, “What can I do?” That led to creating the Bend-based Friends of Central Cascades Wilderness, a group that focuses on educating people about wilderness that work on projects clearing campsites and doing other “boots on the ground” work.

The Fremont-Winema trail system spans a broad region that includes Mount McLoughlin, Miller Lake near Chemult and Lake County’s Gearhart Mountain along with portions of the Pacific Crest Trail.

“There were hundreds and hundreds of trees down,” Johnson said of the PCT through the Sky Lakes Wilderness. “The work is hard enough, then it gets into the 90s.” Along with battling the heat, she and Felton used copious amounts of bug spray and wore head netting because “the mosquitoes have been horrendous.”