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Volunteers keep Washington's trails open and safe

Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2001

ISSAQUAH, Wash. (AP) -- It's a drizzly Friday morning, and no one clustered at the base of Squak Mountain is complaining about the chill in the air.

They've been waiting all week to leave the suburbs behind and turn a brambly stretch of earth into a trail.

They're volunteers for the Washington Trails Association, and they do their thing in rain or shine.

''Fun is what's going to happen,'' crew leader Mike Owens says in a folksy pep talk to his cohorts in green hard hats, ''because we all like being out in the woods, and we all like beating on ourselves to the point that tomorrow we won't be able to get out of bed.''

Everyone laughs, leaning back in their raincoats and hiking boots.

After listening to a safety spiel, they grab their tools and make their way up the mountain on the outskirts of this suburban town 20 miles southeast of Seattle.

Three of them are retirees. One is an accountant on leave from her job in Canada. Another is a victim of dot-com layoffs.

Like the rest of the trails association's 1,300 volunteers, they share a love for the outdoors and realize it takes more helping hands than the state and feds can afford to keep public trails open and safe.

''At the end of the day, you feel like it's the most fulfilling thing you've ever done,'' says Allison Porter, 30, and a casualty of a failed Seattle Internet company. ''If I could do this every day I would.''

The trails association dates back to 1966, when McGrath enthusiasts formed a hikers' information exchange for The Mountaineers, a club based in Seattle. There were no guidebooks then, so members shared stories about their hiking experiences through the mail and over the phone.

Over the next few decades, the organization grew in size and scope, adding trail maintenance to its mission in 1993 to help cash-strapped government agencies take better care of the 9,000 miles of trails that wind through Washington's back country.

''If the government wasn't going to fully fund it, someone had to do something,'' says Greg Ball, head of the association's trail maintenance program. ''If you can get people out in the trails, enjoying the work they put into it, then you're going to increase the constituency for the backcountry.''

The U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of Washington's trails, has budgeted $2.3 million for trail maintenance this fiscal year. The Forest Service's Pacific Northwest region is chipping away at $17.6 million in deferred maintenance and an extra $44 million construction backlog.

The state parks system is also grappling with major budget shortfalls, including a $300 million backlog of major repairs and renovations needed in Washington's 125 parks.

People from all walks of life pitch in for the trails association, making it one of the nation's largest and most active groups of its kind.

There are 5-year-olds and grandparents, retirees and people who take days off work, hiking gurus and beginners keen on learning the lay of the land.

''I've always liked hiking,'' says Owens, 60, an Issaquah retiree. ''This suddenly became hiking with a purpose.''

Owens, a volunteer who turned out so often the trails association made him a member of the staff, is as eager as usual this gloomy Friday morning. So is the rest of the crew trudging through the mess of mud and puddles at the base of the trail.

Their job for the day is to continue work on a switchback up the mountain, where a new trail will give a worn-down swath some time to recover.

State parks land managers use neon pink ribbons to mark the trail, and the volunteers spread out, pick their tools and start whacking away at the sweet-smelling dirt.

The top layer of soil is dark -- full of nettle, wandering roots and other nutrient-rich matter that needs to be cleared away so the trail won't get overgrown with plantlife once the trail is cleared.

They dig until they hit the light brown, clay-like soil, which can withstand the wear and tear of hikers and horses.

Slowly, one heave-ho at a time, the new trail takes shape.

''It always amazes me how much we get done,'' Owens says, pointing to a wild, overgrown patch of land the trail once resembled, ''not only that, but how good it looks.''

Land managers with the U.S. Forest service, state and national parks services and the state Department of Natural Resources work closely with the trails association, giving crews specific instructions of what work is needed and where.

Gary Paull, wilderness and trails coordinator for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, says his staff relies heavily on help from volunteers.

''Most of those trails are in better shape now than any other time I've seen them, and I've lived here my whole life,'' Paull said. ''They do help out a tremendous amount.''

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On the Net:

Washington Trails Association: http://www.wta.org

Washington State Parks: http://www.parks.wa.gov

U.S. Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed.us

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)



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