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Interview: The Jolly Rover Trail Maintenance Crew

What are the Jolly Rovers?

The Jolly Rovers are an independent organization of volunteer trail builders, from all walks of life, specializing in traditional stonework. Without the use of mortar, heavy machinery or imported materials, our volunteers transform highly damaged paths in public parklands into aesthetic works of art, using nothing but native materials found on site and construction techniques that date back to antiquity.

Our growing family of 30 volunteers contributes over 5,000 hours of skilled service every year through building and teaching workshops in public parks and forests, with each individual volunteering an average of 150 hours annually. These volunteers employ their craft at the request of state, federal and nonprofit land managers on some of the most heavily trafficked and ecologically damaged paths in the northeastern United States.

The work we leave behind aims to inspire those that use it long after we are gone, proving that sustainability and beauty can be crafted into something of practical use for the public benefit.

Stone Spliting and Moving
Stone Splitting and Moving

How would you describe the state of trail maintenance these days?

a) Is there a labor shortage?

While the state of volunteerism is still healthy in our public parks, the amount of work that’s needed has been adding up due to increased trail usage and the usual wear and tear over the years. Highly visited trails that were in good shape a decade are now seeing more visitors and showing more signs of erosion. Once the erosion starts, the degradation of the trail accelerates and can be very difficult to fix. It’s hard to keep up with this need for repairs; with federal and state land managers strapped for funding, trail maintenance needs to be supplemented or taken on entirely by volunteers. The volunteers work part-time, but the erosion is occurring full-time, so it’s a tough fight to win if trails aren’t being repaired or built to sustainable standards.

b) Is there a funding shortage?

Unfortunately there’s just not enough money in the state and federal budgets to tackle the amount of projects out there. High priority projects do get funded through government grants but these only make up a minority of the projects that really need to get done. Priority for such funding is often given to multiuse trails, which makes sense since they give access to the widest variety of users, but hiking-only trails which have existed for decades don’t rank as highly when it comes to getting them approved for grants.

c) Is increased trail use or overuse changing the trail maintenance landscape?

One of the best things about our public trails is that they get used, at the same time the fact that they get used so much is also one of the greatest challenges. One of these challenges is sustainability. We’re finding that the traditional solutions of the past to slow erosion aren’t always keeping up with the pace of trail deterioration. A water bar might slow the erosion down for a short while, but it’s not long until that water bar gets bypassed and/or needs to be cleaned out and maintained. In these situations longer-term solutions in the form of more advanced structures such as steps or crib wall are necessary to save the tread way and preserve the beauty of the landscape, but these structures take more time and skill to construct. We don’t just want to build these structures, but help to teach local volunteer communities how to repair or build new trail that will be able to sustain high user traffic.

Drilling Rock
Drilling Rock

How do the Jolly rovers choose which trails to work on?

We choose our projects based on 3 criteria. 1. Safety hazards 2. Ecological damage. 3. Usage. The main concern for us and the land managers is public safety, if things have deteriorated on a trail where the risk of injury is significant then that trail is a priority. After that the amount of ecological damage and use they get are the basis for what projects we choose to work on. Land managers will get in touch with us proposing such projects, typically on highly trafficked trails, that are experiencing increased use year after year and as a result, have significant ecological and aesthetic damage done to them.

What are some projects that you’ve completed recently?

We wrapped up several large projects this year including ones at Minnewaska State Park and the Teatown Lake Reservation in NY both of which consisted of large-scale stone step work of 60-70 steps per project as well as numerous smaller projects in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Ramapo State Forest in NJ and Harriman State Park in NY. This year alone we managed to install over 200 stone steps and over a hundred feet of stone wall in parks and forest from North Carolina to New Hampshire.

Do the Jolly Rovers receive any funding from the trail associations you do work for?

95% of all our projects are still done completely free of charge. Until this year, for the last 4 years, we’ve managed to do all our work without charging a dime, our volunteers put up the money to fund our tools, food and travel expenses. This year we began charging fees for the workshops we teach to help cover our costs of running the organization, we also have begun the process of getting reimbursement agreements for travel expenses for the projects we do on federal land. Even including this though, 95% of the work we do is still completely free of charge.

Shaping Stone
Shaping Stone

Do you train other trail organizations in advanced stonework?

Apart from our efforts to directly improve parklands in the northeast directly through our construction projects, another key part to our mission is to spread the knowledge to other volunteer groups across the country. We seek out organizations and government agencies in need of affordable training opportunities to enhance the skill sets of their own local volunteer communities. Our volunteer instructors currently travel from North Carolina to New Hampshire at the invitation of these host organizations and agencies, some of which include the United States Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, the Wilderness Society, the Monadnock Conservancy and the Vermont Youth Conservation Corp.   Through these workshops we aim to build a lot more than just works in stone, in every community we visit we strive to build the culture of camaraderie and volunteerism that has brought us together and keeps us coming back for more.

How will increased funding be put to use?

We’ve been successful in testing out our growth over the past 4 years, with volunteer service hours growing by 25% annually and membership increasing at roughly the same rate. In order to sustain this growth and expand our reach to more regions we’ll need to take the next step in officially forming as a tax exempt non-profit organization.  There will be legal and accounting fees associated with the process of getting us through the strict state and federal requirements for tax exemption.  We will also need to ensure the Jolly Rover organization and its members with a general liability policy for this upcoming growth year. Finally, we’ll need to create outreach and promotional materials along with making numerous upgrades to our website. These website upgrades and outreach materials will allow us to describe our accomplishments of the past and detail our vision for the future so that we can effectively expand our reach and the work we do.

7 comments

  1. If you’ve ever hiked the Champney Falls Trail on My Chocorua in the White Mountains, the stone staircases on the trail were built by the Jolly Rover crew. I ran into these guys working on this trail last summer and was really impressed with their operation and masonry skill.

    I’ve also seen their work farther south on the Appalachian Trail. You know when you’re hiking on a staircase built by the Jolly Rovers!

  2. Great post. They look like incredibly talented craftsman.

  3. Adding stairs to a hiking trail turns it into a city-park nature walk. The only thing worse is gravel.

  4. Yay! The Jolly Rovers reached their funding goal today. Thanks to everyone who helped!

  5. Thanks for bringing this to light. Missouri Ozarks parks with trails and structures from the CCC ERA (1930s) have some very nice stone work, and we have oodles of stone laying around, sedimentary (limestone and dolomite are prominent). The stones are laying around in the trails here and there, and the CCC workers just cut and “arranged” them. Stone steps really do make a trail more usable in variable weather and prevent footpath erosion after rain.

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