Three sawyers from the Bitterroot National Forest are taking their crosscut saws to hurricane-ravaged Georgia to help clear trees in wilderness areas there.
On Monday, the three — Amelia Shields, Sierra LaBonte and Katherine Bicking — left the Bitterroot National Forest, where they worked all summer clearing trails. They expect to be available for work on the Chattahoochee-Oconee National later this week near Blairsville, Georgia, cleaning up after Hurricane Irma.
“It’s part of the Appalachian Trail that’s in a wilderness area,” said Mark Smith, a trails specialist for the Bitterroot National Forest. “There are about 600 trees down on this portion of the Appalachian Trail, and they need some technical experts, people who are available this time of year when resources are low, since a lot of people have gone back to school.
“They’re trying to maintain those traditional skills and work ethic in a wilderness area, and these three are perfect for that.”
LaBonte and Bicking both are originally from Massachusetts. Sheilds, from Missoula, is a bit smaller, with spiked hair and a few piercings. They’re clearly not stereotypical burly lumberjacks, but chances are — judging from the way they cut a cookie off a log Monday while waiting for their paperwork before hitting the road — they could beat a lot of folks at arm wrestling.
The trio spent the summer helping to clear about 700 miles of trails with other groups like the Montana Conservation Corps and Bitter Root Back Country Horsemen. LaBonte noted that they worked eight days at a time, amid temperatures in the 90s, along with bugs and smoke, then would have six days off.
“We walk in and cut trees, and walk out and cut trees,” Bicking said with a laugh, noting how they can sometimes clear a trail only to have the wind topple more trees within days.
“Or it burns afterward, and we’re back doing it again,” Shields added, grinning.
“People are generally appreciative,” LaBonte chimed in. “People are surprised that we use crosscuts, with old skills people don’t think are being utilized.”
Bicking, who was the trail crew supervisor, said being a sawyer is just a natural progression for her.
“I’ve been doing this since 2010,” she said. “I started with the Montana Conservation Corps for two years, then was hired on with the forest in 2012.
“I like working in wilderness, with that isolation and quiet. It’s a totally different experience than working with a chainsaw.”
Shields also came to the national forest via the Montana Conservation Corps, while LeBonte started with the American Conservation Experience in Arizona, then also came through the MCC. This was her first season with the Bitterroot National Forest.
“Their skills and background experience played a big role in them competing against 100 other people that wanted in this (Bitterroot forest) program,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like we were trying to make it (an all-female crew) happen. It just kind of evolved.”
With the season in the Bitterroot wrapping up shortly, the crew was excited when the word came out that sawyers were needed in forests hit hard by the hurricanes. Not only will it extend their work season by a month or more, they’ll get to try their skills on hardwood trees, as opposed to the softer woods out West. Along with sleeping bags, tents and personal gear, they’ve packed a handful of crosscut saws for a variety in their toolbox.
“We haven’t worked with a hardwood forest, so the dynamics of cutting will be different,” Bicking said. “I’m also excited to meet people from different places and hear of their experiences, maybe do some networking and learn from a bunch of new people.”
Shields added that it will be nice to work among hikers; typically they don’t see a lot of people coming through the backcountry in the West.
“We’ll see a lot of trail users,” she said. “To see different constituencies that use the forests will be fun.”