So many times, as I wander the trails of our nation's mountains, plains, and coastal regions, I have felt profound gratitude for the shovels, mules, and strong backs that have gone before me. I'm talking about those who build and maintain the trails themselves.
Unless you're a bushwhacking, trailblazing backcountry hiker (which I'm not), the trails upon which you (and I) hike have been built and are maintained by human beings. Perhaps it's a sturdy bridge across a tricky creek that calls my attention to the trail-builders. Or maybe it's a well-cut footpath along an otherwise treacherously steep hillside that makes me grateful. When I hike in the spring, before maintenance crews have a chance to clear the trails of winter's deadfall and other hazards, I'm repeatedly amazed at the difference in the trail's condition pre-season and mid-season. The men and women who maintain my hiking trails deserve my thanks and my support.
Not surprisingly, other hikers like me have come to appreciate trail maintenance. We want to give something back in the form of dollars or other support. Increasingly, opportunities exist to volunteer in organized workgroups.
My Home State's WTA
I became curious about and involved with the Washington Trails Association (WTA) when they came to my hometown to build a trail up 800-foot Badger Mountain. A local non-profit organization had partnered with the county parks department and other local constituents to purchase and preserve the hillside of our tallest local hill. Then they called on the WTA to coordinate the building of a trail for all to enjoy.
The WTA is, in the words of their mission statement, "a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization working to preserve, enhance, and promote hiking opportunities in Washington State through collaboration, education, advocacy, and trail maintenance." While the organization (stemming from roots in the 1960s) is extremely professional and well organized, make no mistake: volunteers are its lifeblood. And the way they pull volunteers of all ages and abilities together to create a trail is nothing short of miraculous. They have this DOWN, baby. They provide the tools and the instruction, you show up on time and leave your pets at home. As of December 19, volunteers had logged 65,751 hours of trail building and trail-maintenance time in 2005. The eastern Washington Badger Mountain trail effort was a large one: 86 volunteers on a Saturday followed by 67 on Sunday managed to create and gravel a 1.2-mile trail where none had previously existed.
Of course, shovels and gravel and trailhead signs all cost money, so that's another way to help. Annual memberships of $35 and up (special $20 rate for students and seniors) help defray these costs. And since WTA is incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, those contributions are tax-deductible. Corporate memberships are also available, giving business ranging from publishers to sporting goods retailers a variety of ways to contribute to the state's trail system while building morale in the workplace.
What Else Do Such Organizations Do?
In the WTA's case, they do a lot more for the hiking public than "merely" build trails. They are advocates for political and social issues affecting hikers, interacting with legislators and agency leaders, holding meetings, organizing letter-writing campaigns, and so forth. They are a wealth of information on trails and hiking do's and don'ts. They host guided hikes to familiarize people with special trails (such as the Wildland Hikes series, highlighting areas in need of protection) or to reward volunteers for a job well done. In short, they do whatever it takes within the realm of their resources to provide the information that I, as a Washington State hiker, need to make my awesome hiking experiences in the Evergreen State even better.
Tell Your Story
Opportunities for volunteer trail building and maintenance exist all across the country. If you have a story of a particularly rewarding experience, I'd like to hear about it. If enough readers respond, I'll put an article together saluting our unsung volunteer heroes. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Sally O'Neal Coates is an avid hiker, bicyclist, skier, and outdoor advocate who makes her home in southeastern Washington State. She writes a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com.