Coronavirus is the biggest boom the outdoor industry never saw coming. As indoor recreation ground to a halt in March of 2020, hiking and camping took the place of movies, malls, and bars. For an industry that was already seeing unprecedented growth, the pandemic pushed it over the edge.
Since COVID, every weekday is like the weekends used to be before COVID. And every weekend is like Fourth of July.
And as REI sells out of gear, Colorado’s National Forests and their stewards were drowning under the increased popularity. A lot of the people who flocked to the nearby National Forests during 2020’s summer and fall season were newbies. They didn’t necessarily understand trail etiquette or Leave No Trace principles. They didn’t know trail right-of-way, how to step off without damaging vegetation, or why to walk through a mud puddle instead of on its edges. And while the NFF and U.S. Forest Service were thrilled to see more Coloradans connecting with National Forests, the 1,375 miles of popular trail were getting pretty beat up.
“We have hundreds of miles of trail that are in desperate need of work,” Banks said. “If you combine an already strained system with an exponential increase in demand, you have basically a perfect storm of continued degradation.”
Enter the Front Range Trail Stewardship Strike Team, a partnership between the National Forest Foundation, U.S. Forest Service, VF Foundationand Mile High Youth Corps. This team of eight, 18 to 24 year-olds took Colorado’s deteriorating trails head-on.
“We probably could have used this program five years or 10 years ago,” Emily Olsen, the NFF’s Rocky Mountain Region Director said. “But I think it has a sense of urgency now that it didn't five or 10 years ago.”
For 16 weeks starting in April, the group woke up before dawn to trek out to the trails in the most need of support, hauling 60 pounds of tools including full chainsaws with them. Based on the AG Ranch in the Pike and San Isabel National Forest, the team worked nine-hour days including at least an hour on each side to drive to the trail.
They built structures to divert water to prevent erosion damage, secured loose soil and rocks, constructed bridges and stairs, moved 600-pound boulders, cleared tree branches and removed fallen trees before hiking back out each day. The outcome is a more resilient and more accessible trail system for Denver’s metropolitan population. The trails are better marketed, easier to navigate, and can withstand more foot traffic.
Trail maintenance budgets have constricted over the past few decades. And while staffing dwindled, volunteer organizations tried to pick up the slack. But that meant that work was extremely piecemeal, with no comprehensive strategy coming from inside the house. National Forest personnel couldn’t evaluate multiple districts and direct groups to the highest priority trails in a coherent and consistent fashion.
But the Strike Team offers a full-time, paid position to budding natural resource professionals, and was funded generously by the VF Foundation in its pilot phase. The Strike Team was designed by the NFF and Forest Service with direct input from rangers. The NFF worked with the Forest Service to identify exactly what trails needed to be addressed first. The team’s objectives have been meticulously thought out.
“I could use 10 of these crews,” Banks said, “But we're happy to have the one.”
COVID-19 and the increased popularity of the trails created some challenges for the team. At some trailheads, they had to get to the lot by 5 am just to find a parking spot. Cordell Kadlic, the Strike Team Crew Lead, had his responsibilities widened due to COVID. He was in charge of health checks each morning and upholding mask requirements throughout the day.
“It’s very difficult working manual labor in a mask,” he said. “It can be very, very challenging swinging picks or digging with shovels in a mask. But we've done a very good job of making sure that we're keeping everyone safe.”
But seeing the extremely full parking lots and the endless train of hikers, horses, and mountain bikers going past the team as they move soil and built trenches helped to validate the importance of the crew. According to Olsen, the scale of the work was already overwhelming and the pandemic reinforced how much wear-and-tear the trails were taking.
The material gain from this joint project is just one of the goals. The NFF and Forest Service are intent on training and inspiring the next generation of land stewards for our country’s wilderness.
Giving youth opportunities to do meaningful work on our public lands provides them a foundation to be successful in their careers, to establish their skills and gives them the confidence to be leaders in the future.
The 2020 strike team was a diverse bunch, some locals and others experiencing their first cold Rocky Mountain mornings. Some members had been camping once and only done a handful of day hikes. Others had college degrees in natural resources and understood hydrogeology and still others were just lifelong lovers of the outdoors. But most all needed training on power tools and building.
“This work can be very technical,” Kadlic said. “The work can be kind of confusing for some people, and it surprised me how well everyone picked it up and tackled it.”
For Kadlic, this job just started as a way to be paid to go camping, but becoming a leader on a project helped crystallize his career at 24 years old.
“I discovered because of this job that this is kind of where my passions lie,” he said.