Volunteers use elbow grease, hand tools to restore trail section

Bill Velasquez and Hannes Lades complete one of the many drainage structures designed to direct water off of the Skyline Trail. Courtesy Jennifer Sublett

High above Santa Fe in a meadow called Puerto Nambe, the Winsor Trail meets the Skyline Trail, taking hikers to Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Katherine.

For trail maintenance, it’s a challenge: the Wilderness Act, established over 50 years ago, requires volunteers to use only hand tools to maintain the Skyline and over 400 miles of trails in the Pecos Wilderness, one of New Mexico’s most visited public lands. Power tools, motorized equipment and even wheeled implements are not allowed in the wilderness.

In late June, the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors, led by Mark Kimmel and U.S. Forest Service Ranger Jennifer Sublett, assembled a group of volunteers at Puerto Nambe Meadow, nestled between Santa Fe Baldy and Lake Peak at just above 11,000 feet. Twelve volunteers joined up with two Forest Service staff to set up camp in the wilderness and prepared to tackle the labor-intensive task of repairing and rehabbing trails.

The group was also supported by the Pecos Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of America, led by Derek Tucker and Richard Kingsbury. They packed in the camp kitchen and supplies while volunteers packed in all their personal gear.

The plan was to work as much of the 1.5-mile section of the Skyline from the meadow to the ridge overlooking the heart of the Pecos as possible. Under steady sunny skies, the group worked sections of the trail by re-establishing drainage structures, leveling tread, clearing rubble and correcting badly eroded unsafe sections of trail.

Water and time without maintenance is the enemy of well-placed trail, but at the end of five days, this section was lovingly restored. Scheduling a group of volunteers to do this requires months of planning and many scouting trips to find camping places and water sources to support the group.

Once in camp, the camp cook, Gary Holcomb, erected a primitive kitchen and organized the supplies packed in by horses to cook the 300 pounds of food required to feed the trail workers. It was reminiscent of chuck wagons seen in Old West movies. While volunteers labored from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Gary would watch camp, do dishes and prepare meals. Volunteers worked using specialized hand tools like Pulaskis and McLeods along with well-known tools like shovels and picks to restore trail tread, clean erosion control structures and create new ones. Deadfall and overgrowth was removed with hand saws and loppers.

As every year passes and the budgets dedicated to trails continue to get cut, the work of maintaining trails is left to fewer and fewer paid Forest Service staff. For example, the Forest Service Española District of the Pecos has only three paid staff who work only part time on trails, in addition to other duties.

The Pecos is roughly broken up amongst three Forest Service districts. Increasingly, the task of preserving the trails braiding through the wilderness we love is falling on the shoulder of volunteers.

The New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors works with various agencies and trail groups throughout the state. They partner with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico Friends of the Sandia Mountains, Albuquerque Open Space Division, New Mexico State Parks, National Monuments in the state and various other non-profit and local organizations. Their volunteers are diverse and come from every walk of life and are frequently joined by visitors from other states and countries.

The Skyline project had volunteers from Texas and Indiana. One volunteer from East Texas, Katherine Trotter, who attends many NMVFO projects, summed up the experience: “How lucky am I to be able to do this. These projects, in my humble opinion, are the most rewarding and fulfilling ‘vacations’ ever.”

To learn more about how you can help make a difference in the outdoors, go to nmvfo.org. To get involved in projects focused on the Santa Fe National Forest, contact Jennifer Sublett at jasublett@fs.fed.us.

Bill Velasquez is a member of the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors.

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