Kerry Wood stood on the Piedra Lisa trail on a bright but downright frigid Saturday morning and assessed the situation.
Water had wreaked a little havoc on this particular part of the earthen walkway, but Wood surmised that moving a few nearby rocks would help improve drainage.
“The rock is limiting the water’s ability to go out (off the trail),” said Wood, wilderness trials program manager for the Sandia Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest.
Within seconds of his appraisal, Rosie Preston and Bill Metz were making the fixes. Using a pickax and flat-headed metal spear, the fellow East Mountains residents started digging the boulders loose.
“I could say in a blanket statement that we couldn’t operate without volunteers,” said Wood, citing several organizations that help the Forest Service’s two full-time trail staff members maintain nearly 400 miles of paths within the district.
On this particular day, it’s the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors. The Piedra Lisa outing is one of numerous projects the nonprofit volunteer group has lined up for 2012 – its 30th anniversary year. NMVFO will tackle work on public lands around the state, including El Malpais, Hyde Park, Bosque del Apache and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The projects vary in length from a single day to a nine-day Pecos Wilderness backpacking effort intended to improve trails around Truchas Peaks. The projects are often the brainchild of a group leader but may also be jobs requested by the various public agencies with which NMVFO works. That includes the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the National Parks Service, New Mexico State Parks or U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The work often entails some sort of trail maintenance – grading, removing obstacles and turning back overgrown brush – but could include anything else from seeding to creating fish habitat.
Preston, like most volunteers, said she became involved because she liked being outside.
“I’ve always been an outdoor person – fish, hunt, hike, backpack and all that stuff,” said the chemist. “I just got started with this group, and it’s taken me to places that were on my bucket list.”
Kevin Balciar stumbled across the group in a newspaper event listing about 20 years ago. He’s been involved ever since and is now serving as NMVFO president and organizing this year’s Pecos backpack outing.
“That’s my vacation,” Balciar said. “I like to do the backpacks personally because there’s usually fewer participants and they need more volunteers.
“It’s a good time for me to get out the tent and the sleeping bag.”
NMVFO has a network of approximately 200 paid members throughout the state, mostly concentrated in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas. The group has no paid staff, and the $20 annual membership dues go toward rent and other overhead.
But NMVFO also relies on approximately 200 nonmembers who regularly help on projects.
“We don’t want people’s money, we want their sweat,” said Bill Velasquez, a longtime member who is leading multiple projects this year.
An avid backpacker, Velasquez joined NMVFO in 1995 out of appreciation for the land he so often uses for recreation.
“You spend enough time on the trail and you think to yourself, ‘I need to do something to make sure these trails are still here for the next generation,’ ” he said.
An engineer, Velasquez learned what he needed to know about trail maintenance on the fly. Now he’s sharing his knowledge. He will lead a two-day trail maintenance workshop March 16-17, starting with a classroom session on Friday night at REI and moving outdoors Saturday for hands-on experience on the Elena Gallegos Open Space trails.
Trail maintenance mostly involves fighting the elements – trees blown down from the wind or earth eroded by rainfall or snowmelt.
“Over time, you learn to look at the trail and learn how the water is going to run when it rains – a good way to learn that is to go hiking in the rain,” Velasquez said.
Many NMVFO projects don’t require previous experience, so the novices will learn from veterans or from the officials – such as Wood – who often attend to offer specific guidance.
Volunteers come from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, although there is a dearth of young help.
“The one thing we seem to be missing is the age group between 25-45; they seem to be completely absent from the picture,” Velasquez said.
Not so on Saturday. Cole and Lara Sprague, ages 29 and 27 respectively, showed up to help after reading about the Piedra Lisa project in an REI e-newsletter.
“We said, ‘We just hiked that trail and we liked it a lot, so let’s do it,’ ” Cole said.
It’s not every day that the couple engages in such serious manual labor – Cole joked that he wanted a photo of himself wearing the yellow hard hat and holding the pickax to use on their next Christmas card – but self-described “desk jockeys” who work at a research facility and like to get outdoors when they can.
“We have friends who would probably be interested in doing this too,” Lara added.
New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors member Bill Velasquez is leading a trail maintenance workshop March 16-17. The free program is designed for beginners and starts at 6:30 p.m. Friday, March 16, with a 90-minute classroom session at REI, 1550 Mercantile Ave NE. The field part of the course takes place at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, March 17, at the Elena Gallegos Open Space. It will last approximately a half-day. Contact Velasquez at 292-6030 or firstname.lastname@example.org. n April 14-15 at El Malpais: Improve the nature trail at the BLM Visitor Center on the east side of El Malpais. (contact Jim Scanlon at email@example.com) n April 21 at St. Peter’s Dome Trail: Repair erosion damage and perform other trail maintenance in an area affected by the Las Conchas fire. (Contact Larry Benson at 505-821-7999 or firstname.lastname@example.org) n April 22 at Bachechi Open Space: Celebrate Earth Day with NMVFO. The event is open to the public from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and there will be refreshments and a slide show of the group’s past projects. n April 28 at Perimeter Trail: Repair sections of trail in the foothills of Los Alamos that were lost during the Las Conchas fire. (Contact Bill Velasquez at 505-292-6030 or email@example.com) n May 12 at East Fork Spurs Trail: Improve a steep trail segment leading to a branch of the Jemez River. (Contact Larry Benson at 505-821-7999 or firstname.lastname@example.org) n May 19-20 at Datil Well Campground: Perform trail maintenance at the historic campground and visit the Very Large Array. (Contact Judi Lafleur at 505-883-3973 or email@example.com) n May 24-28 backpack at Mineral Creek: Hike in 1-3 miles of Mineral Creek to clear trail and repair tread. Pack support for food and kitchen. (Contact Wayne Brown at 575-538-3648 or firstname.lastname@example.org) n June 2 at Hyde Park: Celebrate National Trails Day by working on the trail transitions to eliminate confusion for hikers. (Contact Mike Myers at 505-620-4525 or email@example.com) n June 8-10 at Rio Chama: A maximum of eight experienced volunteers will build steps to campsites on the wild and scenic Chama River. (Contact Deborah Radcliffe at 505-255-4960 or firstname.lastname@example.org) n June 16-17 at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary: Construct an ADA-compliant concrete tour path around the sanctuary. (Contact Mike Myers at 505-620-4525 or email@example.com) n June 21-25 at Amole Canyon: Work on the trails in the canyon between Taos and Peñasco. (Contact Deborah Radcliffe at 505-255-4960 or firstname.lastname@example.org) n July 7-15 backpack in Pecos: Work on the trails in and around the Truchas Peaks and the Amphitheatre for a few days or all nine. (Contact Kevin Balciar at 505-293-1477 or email@example.com)tent>
Also on the NMVFO 2012 Calendar: