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Bitterroot Forest volunteers

Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation wilderness ranger volunteers take a moment to pose while working on the Bitterroot National Forest this past summer. This year volunteers gave a total of 37,756 hours of their time to do a variety of work on the Bitterroot Forest.

The Bitterroot National Forest’s Deb Gale faces the same challenge every year in leading the management of the trails, campgrounds and historic buildings scattered across the national forest.

She never has enough staff to get all the work done that needs to be done.

Over the past 16 years, Gale has turned to a growing number of organizations with members who are willing to give of their time to clear trails, staff campgrounds and lookout towers, restore historic buildings and patrol wilderness areas.

Every year, the amount of time, effort and work accomplished that this growing legion of volunteers provides is impressive.

This past field season — in the year the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the National Trails System Act — 627 volunteers gave a total of 37,756 hours of their time to do work that likely wouldn’t have been accomplished without their help.

The appraised value for all that volunteered time came in at $932,207.98.

“It’s pretty impressive when you get to the end of the year and add it all up,” Gale said. “We’ve been building our partnerships with different groups for the past 16 years. The work that they do is invaluable to us and the public.”

Sally Ferguson of the Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation said that organization has volunteers from all parts of the United States and as far away as Austria and the Netherlands who offer their time to work in the Bitterroot Forest’s backcountry on a variety of different projects.

“I think 99.9 percent of the time, people are just genuinely excited to be able to get out into the wilderness and do something to give back to that wonderful landscape,” Ferguson said. “They all seem to share an incredible commitment to the land, which is both inspiring and contagious once they get out there.”

Ferguson said Gale has a gift for developing the partnerships that make the volunteer work possible while offering unique experiences that bring people back each year.

A good example of the partnerships has been occurring on top of St. Mary Peak for the past few years, where volunteers with the foundation have been manning the historic lookout tower.

The volunteers receive training on how to spot fires for the Forest Service while also serving as a front-line resource for the hundreds of people who hike up to the lookout every summer.

“We had something like 1,500 visitors to the lookout tower last year,” Ferguson said. “I think the volunteers are attracted by the unique opportunity. It’s not a post for someone who is seeking solitude, but it does attract friendly and dedicated volunteers.”

Those volunteers logged more than 500 hours this past summer.

The foundation also works with Gale to place wilderness ranger interns on the forest every summer.

“That’s a really special program and one that Deb was instrumental in getting implemented,” Ferguson said. “We recruit volunteers from across the country and work through AmeriCorps.

"Last summer, two young women served on six different projects.”

In total, the foundation sponsored the two wilderness rangers and 26 other volunteers who put in 3,816 hours. Those volunteers cleared 58 miles of trail, including rebuilding some portions of the paths.

“That’s kind of back-breaking work,” she said.

Their crews removed 30 trees that were 24 inches or larger that had fallen across the trail and 196 trees that were 8- to 24-inches wide. Beyond that trail work, they inventoried wilderness campsites and obliterated others with the goal of helping the agency monitor for solitude. And they packed out 22 pounds of trash.

“They go away with an incredible range of experiences that will last them a lifetime,” Ferguson said.

Karen Phillips of the Bitterroot Backcountry Horsemen said their organization has 47 volunteers. Some of those members spend a good deal of time every summer doing trail work that likely would not get accomplished any other way.

“A lot of our members are horseback riders or hikers or both,” Phillips said. “They want to do their part in helping to keep these trails open. I think they also value the outdoor resources that we have here, which are outstanding. They are willing to work to protect those.

“They love the outdoors,” she said. “Ours is a pretty service-orientated group. They just want to give back.”

Other organizations that step forward every year to provide volunteer help include the Selway Pintler Wilderness Backcountry Horsemen, Trapper Creek Job Corps, Montana Conservation Corps, Ravalli County Off-Road User Association, Bitterroot Backcountry Cyclists, National Smokejumpers Association, Idaho Trails Association, B.E.A.R., Salmon Mountain Lookout volunteers, Defenders of Wildlife, Classroom without Walls – Corvallis High School, Passport in Time and campground hosts.

Gale said that there’s no doubt that a lot of the work accomplished every year by the different volunteer organizations on the Bitterroot Forest would go undone without their help.

“The Bitterroot National Forest is 75 percent wilderness or other wildlands,” Gale said. “A lot of people live here because of that. They like to recreate in those wild places, but they also want to do their part in helping to take care of them.

“To do that, they end up spending time to be trained in how to use a cross-cut saw or chainsaw or defensive horsemanship,” she said. “It’s a big commitment for all those folks, that’s for sure. We owe them a lot.”

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.