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Opinion: The Limits of Volunteer Trail Maintenance in the White Mountains

Trail Closure
Trail Closure

I am a volunteer trail maintainer for the US Forest Service in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, one of many other hikers who work to keep our local trails open despite a lack of federal funding to maintain our trail system.

But volunteer trail maintainers lack the where-with-all to repair the extensive damage to the White Mountain Trail System caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. The role of volunteer trail maintainers is to clear trails of vegetation and clean water bars, not to create or rebuild trails that have been deeply eroded, suffered landslides, or had their bridges washed away.

While some Irene-related trail repairs have been completed since the storm, many trails are still in very rough shape. Out of concern, I called the local Ranger station where my volunteer crew is coordinated and talked to a local Forest Service official if there was anything I could do to help speed up their repair efforts.

What she said, chilled me to my core.

[quote]We have a lot of trails in the White Mountains, but we may have to close some of them because we can’t afford to maintain them. [/quote]

It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. There are a lot of trails in the White Mountains that have been closed or lost (see the White Mountains Lost Trail Project) over the years. Trail closure and change is a natural part of the any trail system.

Deep Erosion on the Livermore Trail
Deep Erosion on the Livermore Trail

But I can’t help feel that more could be done to harness the goodwill of the local hiking community to revive some of the trails damaged by Hurricane Irene without resorting to official closures. The truth is that there are more people who want to maintain trails in the White Mountains than there are trails available for them to maintain.

I suspect that many of these volunteers would be interested in learning or volunteering to perform the heavier form of maintenance provided by the professional trail crews that work in the White Mountains today including crews from the Appalachian Mountain Club, The Wonalancet Out Door Club, the Randolph Mountain Club and the Waterville Valley Athletic and Improvement Association.

I’d certainly be interested in volunteering to perform heavier work as long as I didn’t have to pay for a “volunteer vacation”, and I suspect other people would as well. I wish the Forest Service would organize an effort like this or co-sponsor it with one of the local crews mentioned above. I think there’s a significant degree of pent up demand for a stewardship initiative like this in the White Mountains and that a lot of good can come from hikers taking an even bigger role in maintaining the trail system. In the absence of federal funding, there’s really no alternative except to close more trails.


  1. Maybe a not-for-profit organization would work?
    Washington Trails Association works much in the way you described. Volunteer chances are just a click away.. Very organized.


  2. Very well put. Not just the Whites, though. There are numerous large scale examples of Irene destruction such as vehicular bridges that have vanished in western Maine as well that are outside if the Whites. Time to ramp up efforts, but at some point only commercial construction companies could complete some of these wiped out sections.

  3. I say this partially tongue in cheek, but why not also generate money for trail maintenance by soliciting sponsorships from outfitters? You could maybe take it further and sell naming rights: “The EMS Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail”.

    • The outfitters already pay 3% of gross to the Forest Service. But there aren’t enough outfitters to make it really worth it anyway.Guiding is a marginal business at best.

      • The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI, just won a $20,000 grant from Chase Community Giving program to fund trail projects. People get to vote for the projects so you need a wide fan base to succeed. You might contact CFI to see if there are organizational structures (501c3?) that are required to get in on the next round. Seemed like they had said there was another grant opportunity as well.

  4. Unfortunately, history is trying to tell us that there’s no easy answer to this. Recall that one of the themes of the PBS/KenBurns programs about the National Parks is that bureaucracies and organizations alone rarely accomplish great things by themselves. The great things have happened when “champions” invest personal time and energy (sometimes damaging their own prospects) to promote and lead great efforts. That’s when the resources of bureaucracies and organizations get put to good use in getting things done.

    I don’t know the Whites but in my locale I see this at work in the Superior National Forest (SNF). Among with the various “multiple use” activities that divide the FS’s attentions there is the phenomenal Boundary Waters Wilderness (with it’s own story too long to tell here) and various foot trails. One of the foot trails (Superior Hiking Trail) traverses much more than the SNF and benefits from an extremely well run trail association … not needing much in the way of FS resources. The rest of the trails are barely tolerated by the NFS and those that are kept open and usable are only because hard work from folks with volunteer organizations. But if you follow any one of those volunteer efforts you always see one name (or sometimes a couple names) that are always at the heart of moving each work project forward and the same name(s) are there for project after project after project. Without those champions there’d be a lot of valuable volunteer effort just left on the shelf.

  5. There are a lot of things that CAN be done. Here in NYS, we have a similar problem with trails. Worse, perhaps, because the Adirondacks are not under federal control. It’s a huge park with well over a thousands of miles of official trails. Perhaps as many miles of trails are not official, ie, not sanctioned and not maintained. Many pass through “easments” on private lands, leaving no room for improvements or work on the trail. Irene did some fairly bad damage to the older infrastructure, two of the most puplicised are Duck Hole and Marcy Dam. Where would a single state get the money needed to maintain everything they sanction and to fund those who maintain those trails that are essentially “unmaintained?”

    Perhaps the primary people are the groups. ADK, manyl snowmobile clubs, NFCT, trust funds from endowments, as well as the DEC work on most official trails. These require a permit from the DEC. If you have a membership in these organizations, that means you are allowed to volunteer for trail work. Who pays for the lean-tos? How do materials get there? How do new ones get built, or, old ones get removed? Who pays for TP? Food? Camp gear and tools? Just the thought of donating enough money to fly in parts and labour for a single new lean-to is daunting. As is the thought of hiking a 75# bundle of shingles to repair the roof on one. So, trails are sort-of let go or recieve minimal maintenence.

    In areas, trails are chain sawn clear where needed. That’s about it. In other areas, the trail is simply rerouted around blow-downs. On one peak I visited this fall, the trail between Basin and Saddleback was washed away from Irene and a cliff face was left. Is it feasable to even TRY to maintain that trail? No…rerouting was the only viable option. This is in a well used area, soo, it was ribboned off…Red ribbon. Unlike many throughout the ADK’s, that “detour” was marked.

    I would suggest that the Whites recieved the same or worse treatment in the storm. Cleaning up will, of necessity, be limited to high priority trails. Bridges, lean-to’s, and other structures require permission. And, they will require a plan to get that permission. A plan that includes money and labour…not just volunteers on a “catch as catch can” basis. Before getting permission for trail work (which is fairly easy) there should be some real organization and a real plan to attack the problem of closed trails. A survey of the trail needs to be done, minimally. How can it be improved? Why improve it? Any bridges will need to be engineered. Materials need to be paid for. Logistics need to be calculated. How wide does it have to be? How well anchored? Does it include provisions for getting a rescue vehicle through? Who maintains it after it’s built? Walkways for traffic through marshy sections? What would be the best route to a peak? And so on. Dealing with a beauracracy means becoming one in many ways. It isn’t a matter of felling two trees and nailing a few boards across them to make a bridge. Sometimes it can be that simple. Sometimes a simple task will get complicated.

    Anyway, planning, permission, construction, maintenence, and destruction are the major elements for trail work (I probably missed a few.) Simply scrubbing a trail out will work for most people, but trail routing, marking, closing the old trail, and maintaing the new one are all parts of it. Before you do much more than talk about it, as here, you will need to create some sort of organization to perform the task you have set, or, as Jim C was saying, become a champion of one of the trails, ferriting out those people that can help with each task.

    Anyway, good luck! No small project…

  6. Isn’t this the responsibility of whatever club has jurisdiction? In the mid-atlantic region, the PATC does an excellent job of managing volunteer crews and individual overseers. They get help from the NPS and NFS, but even major bridge projects are club led.

    I see some mention on the AMC’s website of trail maintenance, but it looks like it costs money to volunteer? That doesn’t seem right, and I imagine could be discouraging a bunch of people from lending a hand. It also doesn’t look like there are many trips.

    It’s also possible I’m reading this wrong and there is an easy “I want to help maintain a trail this weekend with a bunch of friendly folks” link that I’m missing.

    • Well since its the AMC, its not surprising that it costs money to allow you the privilege of doing free work. Obviously there are costs associated with trail maintenance, but a more rational way to handle this would be to pay for the costs out of the clubs general donation fund while using the volunteers’ free labor. Making the volunteers pay AND labor is pretty ridiculous.

      Chalk it up as one more reason to not become an AMC member.

      • It’s very easy to bash the AMC, but they do far more good than harm in the White Mountains. In fact – and facts matter here – their trail crew has been picking up most of the slack for the forest service after the USFS crew was laid off. They also administer a large community of volunteer trail maintainers and give them free lodging when they work on White Mountain trails. You should give them a little credit.

        Responsibility for the entire White Mountain National Forest lies with the Forest Service, not the AMC, and the other crews I mention above also maintain significant portions.

        I don’t support the AMC’s policy of charging people for volunteer vacations, but at least they are contributing to the desired outcome which is fixing the trails. Perhaps the volunteer contributions are the only way to pay for the supplies, in which case it’s a viable strategy for the segment with the money to contribute.

        Got any better ideas?

        • I’m curious how a trail maintenance trip becomes expensive.

          Tools are obviously an up front expense. Pulaskis and McLeods aren’t cheap. But properly taken care of they should last a long time and the cost-per-trip should be low. Chainsaws and protective gear (along with certification) is a real ongoing expense, but shouldn’t be prohibitive.

          Coordination with the proper jurisdictional authorities is often necessary and can becomes arduous, and I suppose that paying a staff member to do this work could be expensive. But in many clubs this is handled by a regional “super-volunteer”.

          Food and gas would normally be supplied by the volunteers. I’ve never been on a catered trail work trip, and most of the time carpooling reduces the cost per volunteer to something reasonable. Pot-luck dinners are great!

          For multi-day trips, lodging becomes a primary concern. I know the PATC often reserves their cabins for trail workers, free of charge. Other times folks camp. But for broadening the base of trail maintainers single day trips are key. Most potential volunteers want to dip their toes in the water before committing to a multi-day excursion. Not that there is anything wrong with that :-)

          Insurance is a real expense. When you are using club tools with club supervision, there will need to be insurance to protect the club in the case of an accident.

          Anyone else have costly things that I’ve missed? Looks like the AMC work trips range from $25 – $90 a person.

        • And just to be clear, I’m not trying to bash the AMC. I don’t know them, and I’m just going off of what is on their website. Could be they have tons of awesome, free work trips.

        • Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the AMC doesn’t do good things. To answer your question, there’s a number of ways they could handle this situation better.

          -use money from general fund to cover maintenance costs
          -solicit donations earmarked specifically for trail
          -ditch the offices in Boston and use the money saved to pay for maintenance
          -waivers to limit liability & as a result, the cost of insurance

          The issue here is not simply the idea that volunteers paying both in money & labor is ridiculous, its also that you’re limiting the potential volunteer pool. There are those who have plenty of time but not much money to spare , there are those who have plenty of money but not much time to spare, and there are those that have plenty of both money & time to spare. The third group is most likely the smallest.

        • Great points (but what do you suggest we do with the Boston members, all 50,000 of them)

          Sorry if I over-reacted. I’m sure your know how people like to bash the AMC, just because. Personally, I draw a line between the people at Joe Dodge and Joy Street. Totally different populations and objectives. I think the people who live at Joe Dodge deserve our full support. I don’t know most of the people at Joy Street or how they contribute to trail maintenance.

        • No worries – I know the type you’re talking about. And I totally agree with your point about different populations and objectives.

          Many critics of the Boston location argue it would be best to move it completely out of MA and into NH – I don’t think you necessarily have to go that extreme. Obviously there are many members in MA as a result of MA’s higher population and it makes sense to have a location close to this large group. You could move the offices 15-20 minutes north of Boston, say the area around the I-93/I-95 interchange, or even a bit further north, near the I-93/I-495 interchange, and see significant cost savings versus being in the city. Either of of these new areas would be just as accessible, if not more so, since they’re located near the intersections of 2 major highways.

  7. I think the big cost is probably insurance.

  8. I hear exactly the same thing here in Colorado from the Forest Service about possibly closing trails. I belong to the Poudre Wilderness Rangers, a Forest Service volunteer organization. As an organization, we cleared over 1600 trees off of wilderness trails this summer, an extraordinarily high number. Our previous high was about 800 and a normal summer is about 400. Some of this can be explained by the high percentage of beetle-killed trees in our forests, but drought must have played a role, too, since there were many live trees as well. In any case, we don’t see these numbers going down anytime soon, and the Forest Service does not have the money nor (I think sometimes) the will to keep the trails open. Overtime pay and work regulations are such that most Forest Service crews can’t get into the high country, so most of this work falls to volunteers.

    But, even then, the Forest Service makes it difficult with burdensome regulations fostered by liability concerns. I just carry a saw everywhere now and figure it is easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission to cut trees off the trail. Still, someone has to go in there and get the big ones. Goodness knows there were a LOT of them this summer!

    • A lot of people do the same in New England. Thanks for your efforts on our behalf – I know it is self gratifying, but I think people need to recognize volunteers as well.

    • Yep, one of the exceptions to my lightweight mantra is a folding saw to limb moderately sized blowdowns into something that a normal person can at least step over. The damage done to a popular trail by people walking around a blowdown can be serious. Even if it only exists for a couple of weeks!

  9. Followup to the AMC Thread earlier – turns out you can donate directly to the AMC Trails fund – I’ll find out the details. I read about this on the AMC 4,000 footer application where Steve Smith has a long writeup about the sorry state of trail maintenance in the Whites. The 4,000 footer committee has made large donations to help expand the AMC volunteer center at Joe Dodge and for Trail Maintenance.

    No need to reinvent the wheel – maybe we just need to broaden participation and remove barriers to expand AMC’s program by letting people do more and heavier duty volunteer work without having to pay for a vacation to do it.

  10. The A.T. through the park needs to be blazed better … a lot better.

    • The AT from Vermont to Maine is not a park, nor are the White Mountains, and no one group oversees the entire New Hampshire AT. If anyone is to blame for the poor blazing, it’s the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Forest Service: The ATC for not getting the maintaining club in the region to paint blazes or build cairns where blazing is impossible, and the Forest Service for prohibiting blazes in Wilderness areas.

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