Saturday, April 20

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

USFS History: Crestone-Baca volunteers help forest service

By Jose Villa.

More than a decade ago, in 2014, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) held a meeting at the Crestone Charter School (CCS). Officials were concerned that their allocated budgets at that time had no funds for maintenance of designated trails including those in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with trailheads near Crestone and the Baca Grande subdivision. They asked the community for help during those low-budget times and local residents, Dave Miller and Cathy Amenta, stepped forward. 

In their idealistic and community-minded action, they became the founders and co-administrators of a small volunteer organization which they named Crestone Wilderness Stewards (CWS). They agreed to assist in the maintenance of the Rito Alto, San Isabel, North Crestone, South Crestone, Willow and Cottonwood trails.

At another meeting about five years later, CWS volunteers explained the activities of CWS to officials from various organizations involved in the Trails to Schools trail design efforts around Crestone-Baca Grande. Crestone’s mayor at that time said she had never heard of CWS and commented that the group “must be a non-fanfare organization”. Indeed, it was and it never received any funding; the only tangible CWS asset was its volunteer base that logged countless recorded and unrecorded hours over the years. The group was most active from its founding days until about 2018, with the founding members being ably assisted by Emmy Savage, Margot Williams, Don Tullos, Phil Madonna and Francis Bonny.

The main task of the group was to remove trees that had fallen over existing Forest Service trails. Control of smaller vegetation and trail repair work tended to be a lower priority but was done if volunteers were in the area and had the time. 

The removal of downed trees required an assortment of tools which were made available to the group by Brinkley Messick, Coordinator of Volunteers for the Forest Service and, later, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Alliance.  It was, and still is, a time consuming and potentially dangerous job. Since chainsaws are not allowed in Wilderness Areas, the Forest Service required that all volunteers be certified in First Aid and at one of three levels of proficiency in the use of crosscut saws. The crosscut saws were used only for “bucking” downed trees (cutting downed trees into smaller sections to allow removal from trails), not felling standing trees.

The required training was intended to teach volunteers how to work with caution, to cause minimal disturbance in the protected areas and to simply be rewarded by the sense of having contributed. The Forest Service also required that every crew have at least one volunteer certified as a “Class B Sawyer.” If that requirement was met, then other volunteers certified at lower levels, as well as uncertified apprentices, could assist. In all of CWS’s many outings to numerous places, some quite remote and with the potential for many things to go wrong, there was never a serious incident. Perhaps the most notable was when one volunteer slipped into the cold waters of a creek and started becoming hypothermic before being assisted by a crew member. 

The CWS program is inactive now due to members’ aging, death, leaving the area and a general loss of interest in volunteering to maintain the trails. Efforts to recruit new volunteers, ideally younger, generally went unheeded despite the efforts by Emmy Savage and Sally Wier, at that time the coordinator of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC) for the San Luis Valley. Fortunately, the trails in the Sangres are starting to see maintenance again by three different organizations. The Rio Grande National Forest has reinstated their trail maintenance work due to budget increases. They are doing the work mostly with seasonal employees. 

San Luis Valley Great Outdoors (SLVGO) is another regional volunteer organization that has also been sending its volunteers to do maintenance work on the Sangre trails. That group goes by the moniker “Great Outdoors Action Team,” or “GOATs.” Lastly, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), which is based in Denver but has an office and coordinator in Del Norte, has hosted a summer trail work weekend for the past few years. Dozens of volunteers have been based at the Baca National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and sent out to work on the Sangre trails needing attention. Some Crestone and Baca individuals are signing up for these weekends and, in that way, they are continuing the invaluable efforts of the early CWS volunteers.

For more information about volunteering on public lands in the San Luis Valley, contact Katie Goodleaf at katie@voc.org or 719-872-4028.

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