Adopt a Trail ranger program improves local trails | VailDaily.com

Adopt a Trail ranger program improves local trails

EAGLE COUNTY — A decade ago, local forest ranger Jeff Thompson helped construct the Eagle-Vail Trail. Returning to the trail on Wednesday, he thought back to those days he spent building the trail and why it was put there in the first place.

"This was a product of overuse," he said of the trail. "So many people had been hiking this hillside that we thought maybe we could concentrate the use into one more solid, sustainable route."

In his nearly 20 years with the U.S. Forest Service, Thompson has seen use explode in our area. He started in '98 managing the 14ers in the Leadville area.

"Even at that time, overuse was an issue," he said.

Here in the Vail area, it's not only destination hikers using the trails. Locals hike and bike here every day, and the need for maintenance was reaching a critical level at the beginning of the summer. The Forest Service partnered with the Vail Valley Mountain Bike Association and other private donors to start an Adopt-a-Trail program, for which Thompson works as a ranger in a position funded by private donations. His job will go through Oct. 15, at which time the program will hit the drawing board again, looking for funding to keep it running through next season and beyond. With 30 groups of volunteers, and some groups having a dozen or more helpers, Thompson says he has met hundreds of local trail enthusiasts though the position.

"It's probably the most rewarding job I've had with the Forest Service," he said. "Every day, I'm on the trail with 10 to 15 new people, and it seems like I have a conversation with most everybody I'm out with, whether it's talking about life or talking about trails or wilderness. I try to really talk about giving people ownership of their trails."

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120 MILES AND RUNNING

Without proper maintenance of the existing trails, there can be no hope for any new trail construction in our area. And with two or three rangers trying to maintain more than 700 miles of trails in the White River National Forest, the job is daunting.

This summer, however, the new Adopt-a-Trail program has engaged in maintenance efforts on more than 120 miles of those trails.

"So that's 120 miles off of the forest system that the crew doesn't necessarily have to worry about," says Thompson. "They can now focus on other, bigger projects, deeper in the woods."

The maintenance isn't difficult. On Wednesday, the Eagle-Vail trail crew was cutting back overgrowth from the sides of the trails and installing channels for water to flow off the trail.

"It's simple work, but I love the education component of it," Thompson says. "I see these sessions as 50 percent education and 50 percent actual trail work. A lot of groups have never done this before and they don't understand why we're doing this and what it's for."

DEPLETING RESOURCES

The Forest Service's financial resources are ever depleting, mainly due to wildfire suppression. Over the past decade, the U.S. Forest Service's budget has ballooned from 16 percent going toward fires in 2003 up to the 56 percent it is today.

The White River National Forest also sees more than double the amount of visitors of any other national forest in the country. Visitation was 13 million in 2012, and presently, "We think it's more like 15 million," said district ranger Aaron Mayville.

Thompson sees volunteer help as an obvious solution to the burgeoning problem of overuse.

People want to do this work, and they like it," Thompson says. "They have a great time when they're out here, and it's such a great way to get so much more work done."

It's also a great way to see what's going on with your local trails. Before this summer, Thompson hadn't been on the Booth Falls trail in Vail in four years.

"When I went up there with a group a couple of weeks ago, I could see drastic changes," he said. "It was to the point where we had to double back with the Forest Service and talk about what's appropriate now, for this area, and ask 'What do we really need to do to protect this area and also provide a wilderness experience for people?'"

Thompson says with more people taking ownership of their local trails through the Adopt-a-Trail program, the answers will present themselves.

"I envision that this group here, in 5 years, they're going to be the ones who own this," Thompson said from the Eagle-Vail trail on Wednesday, with a gesture toward the volunteer crew working on trail maintenance that evening.

"I'm not going to be out here with them," he added. "They're already going to know how to do this, they're going to know what it needs, they're going to be the ones talking to the public out here, educating the public the same way that I'm educating them right now."

To get involved with the Adopt-a-Trail program, contact Adopt a Trail coordinator Michelle Wolffe at edadoptatrail@gmail.com.