Volunteering to pull ivy or plant trees for an hour or two is awesome, but it takes special dedication to disappear into some remote corner of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest for a whole weekend of unpaid labor.
The Cascade Forest Conservancy is looking for upwards of 100 hardy volunteers to join weekend work parties in the wilderness this year. For example, 10 strong bodies are sought for a July expedition at Trout Lake, where participants will get no compensation for the privilege of hauling heavy gear along uneven trails to an old-growth ponderosa pine forest, and setting to work with shovels and rakes.
Their task will be reducing the outsize carpet of duff that a century of fire suppression has allowed to grow much too large, according to trip leader Amanda Keasberry, the Cascade Forest Conservancy’s science and stewardship manager.
The small Portland agency was called the Gifford Pinchot Task Force when it joined the spotted-owl and timber wars of the 1980s, Keasberry said. More recently it has revised its mission and started branching out into hands-on restoration and citizen science projects.
“Not too many groups work in the Gifford Pinchot,” she said. “We’re at the forefront.”
While thick-barked ponderosa pines have evolved to be nicely fire resistant, their underground roots are shallow and vulnerable, Keasberry said. That’s why the conservancy wants to help the grassroots Mt. Adams Resource Stewards thin out the fuel now swamping that rare stand of ponderosa pines. A wildfire in that growing layer of duff — needles and leaves, limbs and branches, chunks of the ponderosa’s characteristic jigsaw-puzzle bark — could be disastrous, she said.
Keasberry took pains to add that sweeping up the forest floor is only one element in a broader advocacy effort that views human encroachment into nature as the real culprit in fires that have recently raged across the West, she said.
“When people call them ‘wildfires,’ that’s a huge misconception,” she said. “A very small percentage start in the forest. Most start where we all live and they’re caused by power lines and people with matches.”
Hard work and nerdery
Protecting against fire is only the newsiest project the conservancy has to offer this year. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic may have the unintended consequence of getting more done in the Gifford Pinchot in 2021 than in previous years when just a few large trips were planned, Keasberry said. This year, the plan is for more than a dozen smaller trips, limited to just 10 volunteers each.
A trip that’s more science nerdery than hard labor — except for the ruggedness of the trail — is huckleberry monitoring. Volunteers will head into the Gifford Pinchot near Randle to collect data about the health and production of huckleberry stands planted in the wake of timber harvests. That information is crucial to Indigenous people for whom the huckleberry remains a traditional and revered staple.
Huckleberry monitoring consists mostly of recording data on clipboards, but there’ll be a little time set aside at the very end for some sweet huckleberry picking, too.
Everybody will need a free huckleberry permit from the Forest Service for that, Keasberry said.
Check out the Cascade Forest Conservancy website to read trip descriptions, details and difficulty levels, which range from 1 (easiest) to 5 (most difficult). Upcoming trips include everything from collecting native seeds for later use in post-fire landscape restoration (Level 2, not too hard) to visiting 57 wildlife cameras in remote corners of the Cowlitz Ranger District to download images (Level 5, super strenuous).
“The difficulty ranges from walking on flat roads and trails to bushwhacking up steep hills, over downed logs, and through the water,” Keasberry said. “The work itself ranges from collecting data on an iPad to planting trees all day long.”
A handful of these trips will accept day volunteers, but most must be overnight.
“We venture pretty far into the forest and stay the night to get it all done,” she said.
Campsites are reserved in advance, so volunteers usually have access to vault toilets, potable water, fire pit and a picnic table, Keasberry said.
But food and camping gear are your own responsibility, she added, and while the pandemic is raging there’s a special premium on social distancing and avoiding sharing food and equipment. Tools and gear will be distributed at the start of the trip, and everybody uses their own. This year, wearing face masks is always required when working on federal lands, Keasberry said.
Hard work and health restrictions aside, Keasberry said, the best part of each trip is always the after-dinner campfire.
“It’s great because you have these groups of strangers that know nothing about one another besides the fact they care enough about the forests to be on a trip like this,” she said. “That fact alone makes it easy for people to hang out and have great conversations.”