Volunteering: The Engine of Progress


September 26 was National Public Lands Day and though Chet and I are both very involved with doing trail maintenance for the Land Trust of North Alabama, I wasn’t aware of this initiative until it was almost over! I figured I wasn’t the only one, so I thought I’d use my blog post this week to let folks know about it for next year, and also about other ways you can volunteer to maintain our treasured public lands.

National Public Lands Day started in 1994 by the National Environmental Education Foundation with 3 sites and 700 volunteers. This yearly event, usually held on a Saturday in late September, has grown to be the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for public lands. In 2014, about 175,000 volunteers worked at 2,132 sites in every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This year, they were up to 2,517 sites.

Locally, there were NPLD events in the Bankhead Forest and on Redstone Arsenal, but the event that I was involved with was one for the Land Trust of North Alabama. Toyota is a national sponsor of NPLD and this year the local Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama group teamed with the Land Trust to make improvements at the Monte Sano Preserve trailhead on Bankhead Parkway – one of the most popular trailheads in Huntsville. On a cold, rainy Saturday morning, 80 Toyota volunteers gathered to install 2 interpretive signs, repair benches, repair a wooden picnic table and install 4 new ones, install a dog waste station, update the environmental education pavilion, install a grill, repaint the kiosk and prepare it for new updated signage, reroute part of the Tollgate Trail, and repair 2 bridges.  I was there as a Land Trust volunteer, and honestly that day that mostly meant I ran to get folks tools or put things away when they were done with them. Those Toyota folks really did the hard work and got so much done!

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Despite the weather, I had a great time and I am so grateful to Toyota for donating time and money to this project.

Now, you might be asking – do I have to wait a year to get my volunteer on? Why no, no you don’t. As a matter of fact, the Land Trust has a very active volunteer program. I’m going to use the rest of this blog post to talk about how Chet and I volunteer with them, but check out their volunteer page for all sorts of other ways you can volunteer and who to contact about it.

Chet started us out. His first trail maintenance day was in November of 2011, when he joined a group that worked on pulling weeds and lopping branches on the Waterline Trail on Monte Sano.  He must have talked it up a good bit because a week or two later I joined him out at what was to become Harvest Square Preserve to help the Sparkman cross country team put in a trail there. That trail sadly got obliterated by the tornadoes that came through in 2012 (it has since been repaired), but that didn’t discourage us and we continued to come out to any trail maintenance day we could.

Trail maintenance can mean a lot of things, actually, requiring varying levels of know-how, strength, and effort. The Land Trust has a cache of tools for all the jobs, though you can also bring your own if you’d rather. They also provide gloves and water so really, all you have to bring is yourself!

annandale_trailheadThe easiest thing we do I think is to put up trail diamonds to mark the trails. Sometimes we’re replacing diamonds that have been defaced, swallowed by a tree, or attached to a tree that has fallen over; sometimes we’re swapping out diamonds when trails have been renamed or just marked incorrectly; sometimes we’re putting up diamonds on a new trail. The Land Trust provides the diamonds, screws, and a cordless drill (though Chet and I usually bring our own drill). You do have to know where the trail is supposed to be but usually you’d be with the Land Steward who could make sure you were marking the right thing. If you want your own maps, though, the Land Trust website has a good set of pdf trailmaps you can download or CartoMaps has a set of very good trail maps available for iPhone and Android for many Land Trust properties.  Also, one of the perks of becoming a Land Trust member is free access to the CartoMaps. Chet and I used them recently when we put up trail diamonds on Flat Rock trail and they were really very nice.

53dry_creek_overgrown Another fairly easy job is doing pure maintenance on an existing trail. On this kind of trail maintenance day, we lop branches that are crowding into the trail, pull weeds, and remove any fallen trees. It’s mostly pretty easy work. Honestly I think the hardest part is carrying the tools to the part of the trail that needs the work. Sometimes you have to hike in a mile or so to get to where you’ll be working. I usually avoid the heavy chainsaw (I’m a wimp) and stick to the lighter loppers. Sometimes the less used trails can get very overgrown, as you can see in the photo at the right.

wild_trail_markingMy favorite trail maintenance jobs by far though are the total re-route or brand new trail varieties. The current Land Steward, Brandon, has gone to a lot of training about how to site your trails to prevent or correct for erosion. Some of the trails created long ago have quite a bit of trouble with that sort of thing, resulting in big gullies or tricky footing. Brandon takes the topography into account and marks out a new route following a gentler slope for the troublesome piece of the trail.  He usually has gone ahead beforehand and marked out the new route with ribbons on the trees. Building a new trail is a very similar kind of thing, but to me it’s more exciting because I’m helping to make something brand new! The tools we use for this kind of work include the trusty loppers, cordless drill, and chainsaw, but also the Pulaski (Chet’s favorite tool), and the McLeod (sort of a glorified rake). This work involves the standard lopping and maybe some chainsawing, but in addition we use the Pulaskis to chop out roots or rocks that are in the way, and the McLeod to rake off the leaves and debris from the trail-to-be and then to tamp the dirt down to make a solid pathway. My favorite thing is walking back at the end of the work session on a trail that looks like it’s been there forever, but wasn’t there in the morning. Check out the before and after pictures below on a trail re-route on Monte Sano from August to see what I mean.



So if you want to get some exercise in the great outdoors while giving back to our community, I encourage you to join us for a trail maintenance day. The Land Trust usually puts up a Facebook post on their page about upcoming maintenance days, plus if you go to the volunteer page I linked above, there is contact information for getting on the email notice list. Depending on weather and other Land Trust obligations, they usually try to have a maintenance day roughly every month or 6 weeks. Hope to see you there!

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