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Labor of love in the wilderness

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians who frequent the forests and mountain trails outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe perform a vital role as guardians of these recreational areas.

A pack train of horses and mules head back from a work project in the Pecos Wilderness on Labor Day Weekend in 2015. (SOURCE: Back Country Horsemen of NM Pecos Chapter)

A pack train of horses and mules head back from a work project in the Pecos Wilderness on Labor Day Weekend in 2015. (SOURCE: Back Country Horsemen of NM Pecos Chapter)

Each year, groups from local clubs put in thousands of volunteer hours to keep the trails clear of vegetation, repair weather- and fire-caused damage or create new routes to enhance the trail experience. They partner with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Continental Divide Trail Alliance (CDTA), Albuquerque Open Space Division, New Mexico State Parks and National Monuments in the state.

“Volunteers accomplish an astounding amount of work every year, especially on trails in and out of the wilderness,” said Jennifer Sublett, the U.S. Forest Service volunteer coordinator for the Española & Pecos/Las Vegas and Coyote Ranger Districts.

Friends of the Sandia Mountains volunteers install a wooden wildlife drinker they built by hand to replace the old and deteriorated "Bird Log" at Capulin Spring Picnic Area, a popular viewing spot for bird watchers. (SOURCE: Carl Smith)

Friends of the Sandia Mountains volunteers install a wooden wildlife drinker they built by hand to replace the old and deteriorated “Bird Log” at Capulin Spring Picnic Area, a popular viewing spot for bird watchers. (SOURCE: Carl Smith)

Sublett decides which maintenance projects to pursue in her area and coordinates with the various groups to schedule the work and tracks their hours. In the Santa Fe National Forest alone, volunteers put in 24,000 hours of service in the fiscal year between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016.

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Important work

Volunteer labor has become critical to keeping trails open as federal budgets have been cut, said Kerry Wood, wilderness and trails program manager for the Cibola National Forest Sandia Ranger District. He is one of only two Forest Service employees with responsibility for about 400 miles of trails that crisscross the Sandia Mountains and a big chunk of land south of Interstate 40 near Tijeras.

“We have to have the manpower to get trail projects done,” said Wood.

(SOURCE: Back Country Horsemen of NM Pecos Chapter)

(SOURCE: Back Country Horsemen of NM Pecos Chapter)

It’s tough physical work that often involves using hand tools – federal law prohibits the use of power tools in congressionally designated wilderness areas – to saw through storm-felled trees, lop off branches and dig dirt to re-route trails to prevent erosion. Volunteers typically have to have first aid and CPR training and receive certification to use tools like a chain saw or the traditional two-person cross-cut saw.

Wood said the Forest Service usually provides tools, gloves and hard hats, and training for saw operators. Volunteers may have to pay for the first aid training.

Despite the demanding nature of the trail maintenance work, there are plenty of groups that have risen to the task.

‘For love of it’

Bob Lowder, a member of Friends of the Sandia Mountains, uses a chainsaw to remove a large tree that was blocking a ski trail near the Sandia Crest. (SOURCE: Scott Dietrich)

Bob Lowder, a member of Friends of the Sandia Mountains, uses a chainsaw to remove a large tree that was blocking a ski trail near the Sandia Crest.
(SOURCE: Scott Dietrich)

Bob Lowder is a longtime member of Friends of the Sandia Mountains, a nonprofit that works with the U.S. Forest Service on conservation projects in the Sandia Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest. He and other members tackle trail projects almost weekly anywhere from the Sandia foothills near Placitas to the edge of the Isleta Reservation. Most of the crew are retirees in their upper 60s or early 70s.

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“They do it for the love of it,” said Lowder.

Albuquerque architect Kevin Balciar, an avid hiker, took the initiative on his own to bring a volunteer crew to work in the Pecos Wilderness. He began about 24 years ago and has coordinated with Sublett to do a couple of project each year since.

His 6- to 11-person crews typically follow a trail to a campsite and use that as a staging area during their nine-day project. One of their projects involved clearing trees from trails in the area hit by the 2013 Jaroso Fire that burned more than 10,000 acres of the Pecos Wilderness near the Pecos river headwaters. Sometimes projects are in such remote areas with such challenging terrain that supplies have to be brought in by pack horses or mules.

“It can be an enormous job,” said Mary Ann Ende, president of the Pecos Chapter of Back Country Horsemen of New Mexico. The group has helped other volunteer organizations by hauling in supplies of food, water and lumber to forest sites in the Pecos Wilderness far from the nearest trail head.

Burned areas

Tree clearing work by volunteer crews from Santa Fe Fat Tire Society, a mountain bike club, helped reopen trails near the Santa Fe Ski area that were scorched by the 2011 Pacheco fire.

Club member Brent Bonwell estimated members put in more than 2,500 volunteer hours and cleared about 400 trees in 2016.

The club has adopted a roughly six-mile section of the Winsor Trail in the Santa Fe National Forest. It also partnered with the Commonweal Conservancy, a private nonprofit, that has developed trails in the Galisteo Basin.

“There are about 100 miles of trails that we maintain and clear downed trees. Those in burned areas require more maintenance,” Bonwell said.

Other groups that pitch in to maintain local recreational trails include the Albuquerque Mountain Bike Association (AMBA), Placitas Area Trail Association, East Mountain Trails Association and New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors.

In some cases, agencies are able to provide grant funding for projects. AMBA recently partnered with the Sandia Ranger District, which received a $50,000 federal grant for trail improvements in the popular mountain biking area around Cedro Peak east of Albuquerque. The mountain bike club committed nearly $3,000 toward the project, which will enable Sandia District to hire a five-person trail crew for the 2017 summer season, according to the club website.

“Together, volunteers and grant-funded trail crews help us to accomplish our trail maintenance and improvement goals each year,” Sublett said.

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