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  • Kayla Sulak

Our Public Lands & Trails Need More Stewards

There are a lot of photographers and bloggers (like myself) who are sharing pictures, writing about the amazing, beautiful places they discover in nature, and encouraging others to get outdoors more. The original intent of creating this blog was, in fact, to share trip reports of the best hiking adventures around the Pacific Northwest. Frankly, though, it feels irresponsible to encourage more foot traffic on the trails if I'm not also promoting stewardship and sustainability, and pitching in to help our public lands.

Our National Forests, public trails, and Wilderness areas need more stewards who are proactive about helping out. A steward is defined as a guardian of sorts who helps take care of something. Our public lands really are owned by each and every one of us, and it's up to everyone who goes there to help take care of those places.

Keep reading to learn about two fun, rewarding ways I took action this summer. The purpose of this blog post is not to "toot my own horn," but to (hopefully) inspire at least one other person to give back to public lands and/or public hiking trails!!

Volunteering to Improve Hiking Trails

Do you like to go hiking? People are out exploring the trails more than ever before, it seems! A lot of previously uncrowded hiking destinations are becoming more popular, thanks in large part to the internet and social media making it easier than ever to share with everyone. That's wonderful in a lot of ways--after all, time in nature is great for the soul, and everyone deserves to enjoy that--but as the number of trail users increases, the trails need a lot more maintenance than simply being walked over by lots of people!

You may not already know this, but it takes a lot of extra labor to keep hiking trails accessible year after year, most of which is done by volunteers! Not only is doing trail work a great way to find out how trails are designed and maintained (you've probably walked over all sorts of drainage features while hiking and barely even noticed!), but volunteering on the trails is probably one of the best ways to meet other people who love spending time out there. It's also extremely rewarding to make a difference on a trail that many other people will hike over in the future!

Above: a portion of new trail that was built by volunteers, on behalf of the Pacific Crest Trail Assocation. August 2019

There are a lot of different organizations who facilitate volunteer trail work! The best place to inquire is with your local National Forest ranger station, but I will link a few other non-profit organizations below who are pitching in around the Pacific Northwest. Here in Oregon and Washington, the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) does a ton of trail work in conjunction with the Forest Service, both on the Pacific Crest Trail itself and on some neighboring trails that connect with it (for example, they've also hosted volunteer trips along the Eagle Creek Trail in Oregon, and other Columbia River Gorge trails).

This summer, I signed up for a few of the PCTA's extended "Volunteer Vacations" to pitch in on the trails for a week at a time (click here to watch my YouTube video)! The Volunteer Vacations are especially awesome, because they host you in the backcountry for an entire week AND they feed you snacks and three meals per day. They bring the tools, hard hats, and the kitchen setup; you just show up prepared with your own stuff to hike around and camp out with them for the week.

Here's a list of some organizations in Oregon/Washington who organize volunteer trail work:

Pacific Crest Trail Association

Washington Trails Association

Friends of the Gorge

Trailkeepers of Oregon

Oregon Natural Desert Association

Youth Corp groups for youngsters (like NW Youth Corps)

The National Forest Service, of course!!

Volunteering to Clean Up Trash

As long as there are humans on Earth, littered waste and other forms of carelessness will probably always be an ongoing problem. People are talking about "Leave No Trace" a lot lately, a handful of principles to limit one's impact in nature, but is that enough...? What our planet needs is more people who are proactive... not only willing to leave no trace, but to leave a BETTER trace by doing little things to help improve on other people's prior carelessness.

While out truck camping in Central Oregon, I would frequently come across atrocious dump sites--things like makeshift targets and shotgun shells from recreational gun users; illegally dumped appliances and yard waste; abandoned homeless camps filled with random stuff; or sometimes, just a newly constructed rock ring for a campfire, with an eighteen pack of empty beer cans strewn into the bushes nearby. Once, I even found an entire bus or RV in the desert that had evidently caught fire and/or exploded, and all that was left was an engine, an axle, a lot of ashes, and a big pile of stuff that someone had perhaps tried to save from said fire/explosion.

Months went by after reporting some of the worst sites to the Forest Service, yet no one ever came to do anything about it. Sometimes, while on my way back into town, I would stop and pick up one bag of littered garbage on the way. The difference it made to pick up just one single bag of garbage was, visually speaking, pretty dramatic!

To my surprise, most places remained clean for a long time after fixing them up, which has led me to believe that it's not futile or a "lost cause" to clean up litter. People are a lot more likely to trash a place if it's already trashed, and conversely a lot more likely to leave a place clean, if it's already clean.

The problem isn't that nobody cares, of course. Using the power of social media, I've organized several group efforts to clean up problem areas outside of Bend and Sunriver, Oregon (you see, social media isn't entirely a bad thing!). It's clear that many people do get fired up about the litter issue, and are willing to offer their helping hands, donate supplies or funds, and promote the events by word of mouth. A local news channel has even been willing to broadcast about the clean-up events a number of times.

At each of the few clean-ups I've hosted, we've hauled over two thousand pounds of littered trash to the landfill (that's with a turnout of about a dozen people, and 3-4 trailers for hauling)!! What might seem daunting to pull off, is actually pretty easy when a lot of people pitch in to help! Heck, it was even fun. It's definitely the collective effort and contributions of a lot of individuals which makes it such a success.

one of several trailer loads of trash hauled from Camp Abbott target shooting area in Sunriver, Oregon

Above: one of several trailer loads of trash we hauled from the Camp Abbott cinder pit in Sunriver, Oregon; below: a before-and-after comparison of part of the cinder pit from the same clean-up. June 4, 2019.

If you've been encountering the same problem with litter on public lands, I hope you'll consider someday attending, or even arranging your own clean-up event to help out! It makes a huge difference. If you're thinking of organizing an event yourself to clean up on public land, the Forest Service and BLM offices may be a great place to go for advice and safety tips (also feel free to send me an email if you have questions!). In Oregon we also have SOLVE, a non-profit organization which you can register with to get free supplies for your own in-state event, or simply find a volunteer event in Oregon to attend.

Even if you don't have time to attend a clean-up event, consider setting a goal to pick up even one piece of litter from the trails, streams, or campgrounds, each day that you're out enjoying the great outdoors! It really does add up to make a big difference.

Other Ideas on How to Volunteer

What are some other ways to volunteer for public lands and/or the planet?? There must be tons of similar ways to volunteer "in the field." Here are a few more ideas that were suggested by friends:

- the Oregon / Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife needs volunteers to help monitor endangered and invasive species, and restore native habitats in our environment

- local hunters associations (like the Oregon Hunters Association) strive to be sustainable and frequently arrange habitat restoration projects, etc.

- write to your elected representatives to tell them why we need to protect public lands, or why public land matters to you (this is a big one)!

Do you know of another way to get out and volunteer for our environment and our public lands? I would love to hear from you, because I might like to add your idea to this list!

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