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Aaron Babcock, left, with the Siskiyou Mountain Club, and Jason Middleton, an REI sales manager, use a crosscut saw in 2017 while clearing trees from a fire area along a trail in the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

Working on a $46,000 grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, crews from the Ashland-based Siskiyou Mountain Club are repairing 60 miles of trails damaged in 2017 by the 191,000-acre Chetco Bar fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness.

Huge, hot-burning conflagrations cook soils and increase erosion, says club Executive Director Gabriel Howe. They also kill trees, which fall across trails and block them, a process that begins immediately and goes on for years. With new scrub growth, trails can get buried and lost.

This spring, the club added to its trail work with a $126,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service for a one-year project over 89 miles in the Kalmiopsis. These funds, he says, are focused on safety and retaining soil, building water bars, which angle rain off to the side, and making sure trails don’t wash out.

The OCF grants offer more latitude, focusing on the user experience, creating signs, removing brush and “giving us more opportunity to make the project encompassing and holistic, instead of just making sure it drains and is safe enough,” Howe notes.

Arduous task

Both involve the arduous task of bucking large fallen trees with a manual two-person saw. The crews work 10-hour days, eight days on and six days off.

“This summer, we have a crew of three very well-trained professionals, out there making good money and getting a lot of overtime and focusing on the Forest Service ways of doing things,” says Howe.

Karly White, a member of the Chetco Bar crew, says, “We have a lot of work. We started in April. Some of the trails haven’t been cleared since the Biscuit fire (a 500,000-acre blaze in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in 2002). We’ve had tens of thousands of trees to cut and we’re almost done.”

Howe praises the work ethic of the crew, noting, “That one crew are bad-ass, hotshot, powerhouse people who get a lot done.”

Melissa Wilmot of OCF praises the Siskiyou Mountain Club as “an incredible local nonprofit.”

“In less than a decade, they have built an organization that has earned the respect of and major contracts from the Forest Service, is known for its hard-working, mission-driven staff and active board, and has attracted more than 300 hands-on volunteers to support their work.”

Time sensitive

She notes that the restoration of the wilderness trails damaged by the Chetco Bar fire, which burned in Coos and Josephine counties, is time sensitive.

“If the trails aren’t restored this summer, they could be lost,” she says. “This project met all four objectives of OCF’s livability, environment and citizen engagement funding priority: it promotes volunteerism, supports stewardship of outdoor spaces, addresses an environmental challenge and preserves a place essential to community identity.”

Grants must be pursued each year, and while crews clear trails for now, burned trees will still be toppling over at a significant rate 20 years from now, Howe says.

“A lot of my job is fundraising. It’s doable for us, but it’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, where you finish at one end and start right up at the other end again. It’s not sexy.”

The funding finances a volunteer coordinator who manages community “interns,” he says.

“That is very important to us in the wake of wildfire, as it’s healing and constructive for community when people are able to help and give back after a big fire.”

The Siskiyou Mountain Club started seven years ago as a nonprofit and has grown to 600 members who donate $25 to $10,000 a year each. It has two field directors and a seasonal staff of eight.

Forest ‘arteries’

Howe describes trails as “the arteries of our national forests, not just a path you walk on.”

“They are where people enjoy the national forests from, the campgrounds, overlooks,” he says. “It’s where people gain an experience of public lands. If the trail sucks, the experience sucks.

“We’re well-positioned now to keep the trails alive,” Howe adds. “We know the patterns and the business really well. We’re postured in the wake of all these wildfires to keep all these trails open in perpetuity. You have to be prepared for the long-term damage. The fires go out and you get to work.”