The 1998 revised Coconino National Forest Plan identified the Western Gateway area as an area of high importance. The revision identified the project area for use as a “trail access hub” to host a robust non-motorized trail system. Over the next two decades the project evolved into a community driven ~29-mile trail system with a major restoration component, approved on May 31, 2018.
In November 2018, 18 community volunteers, led by five Forest Service (FS) trail crew members, broke ground on the Western Gateway trails by completing .12 miles of new construction on the Girdner Trail reroute. This was the first of 19 volunteer workdays through April 2019 when the field season gave way to intense summer heat and monsoons.
Even the December 22, 2018 – January 25, 2019 Federal shutdown had little project impact. As the shutdown dragged on, it threatened the start of two four-person nonprofit youth crews from the American Conservation Experience (ACE) and two volunteer workdays were cancelled. Originally scheduled to begin on January 9, 2019 and funded, in large part, by a $25,000 National Forest Foundation (NFF) Matching Award Program (MAP) grant, the Coconino National Forest determined that ACE’s work was essential, recalled two furloughed Forest Service trail crew staff and ACE began work on January 23, 2019 for eight weeks. The shutdown ended two days later.
Over 50 volunteers – including the Gear Girls (below) came out on the first post-shutdown workday on January 31, 2019 and built more than a half a mile of trail. All told, crews and volunteers contructed, adopted or naturalized more than 20 trail miles in season one.
Season two kicked off on October 26, 2019 when 32 volunteers turned out for the first of 15 volunteer workdays. Additionally, two eight-person ACE crews began eight weeks of work on January 8, 2020 again funded, in part, by a follow-on NFF MAP grant. The crew finished work just prior to all non-staff work shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March 2020. Forest Service trail crew continued working (photo #4) during this time and finished the project in early April 2020. In season 2, volunteers, ACE and the Forest Service constructed the final 9.55 miles of trail, obliterated 12.5 miles of social routes and maintained 29.65 miles of trail.
The NFF MAP grant was a catalyst for community fundraising. These funds and the collaborative strength of local governments, non-profits and volunteers guaranteed project success. An official Western Gateway trail system dedication ceremony will be held as soon as COVID – 19 safety protocols allow for events of this kind.