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A couple of days with the volunteer trail stewards

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greg o'leary

After seemingly endless days of sun, it was one of those bone-chilling, gray mornings that make staying home very attractive. But Jane Stock and Susan Penn, Volunteer Trail Steward coordinators for Eureka's Hikshari' trail, had tasks and tools to keep the several dozen volunteers busy and refreshments to take the edge off of the marine layer. Teams of stewards scattered north and south to remove graffiti, pull invasive plants (like the aromatic but ubiquitous fennel) and collect trash (one volunteer waded in the edge of the muddy shoreline to pull out a shopping cart). It was incredible what this many hands accomplished in a couple of hours.

The Volunteer Trail Stewards, a citizens' brigade modeled after successful programs in the East Bay Park system and elsewhere across the country, is a program of the Humboldt Trails Council, a small local nonprofit. The local stewards effort began about three years ago, and now has several hundred volunteers at four locations. Humboldt County Public Works Department Deputy Director Hank Seemann, who is not prone to hyperbole, says the program "has been one of the great developments for trails over the past many years."

Penn says that she got involved with the Hikshari' stewards program because, "I simply can't imagine not doing as much as I can to make this spot better, to honor the people who fought to make it accessible to the greater public and to restore the native beauty." The area has been a personal sanctuary, a place to go for a brisk walk or to watch the seasons change for many years, she says, calling it one of "Eureka's secret treasures."

The 1½-mile-long Hikshari' trail is a gem. Walking north from the Hilfiker parking lot, the trail hugs the edge of the bay, and farther south, after a wooded corridor, the landscape opens up with views over the Elk River Slough. "Well-maintained public spaces like trails," Stock observes, "are essential to a healthy community." That day, there were cyclists, walkers and joggers of all ages and speeds.

Seemann says that one of the greatest challenges for public agencies willing to build new trails is not the cost of building, but the cost of maintaining and managing a trail. The county spends around $40,000 annually on basic maintenance of the Hammond Trail. Consider the cost of trash collection at the trailheads, removing graffiti, trimming back vegetation along the 5½-mile trail, maintaining kiosks and signage, repairing fences, periodic inspection of the Hammond bridge, clearing encampments, controlling erosion and staying ahead of wear and tear on the trail. It all adds up, and it's almost surprising that it doesn't cost more.

I have been involved in the Volunteer Trail Stewards program since its modest beginnings three years ago. It involves little more than I would be doing any way and it does provide me with a little extra incentive to get out of the house and take a walk (or a run or a ride). Whenever I am walking one of our four locations, the Hammond Trail, the Arcata Community Forest, the Hikshari' Trail or the Friends of the Dunes trail system in Manila, I become the "eyes and ears" of the trails. Generally that means noting maintenance or safety issues and reporting them to the appropriate authority. I often pick up litter as I go and, since I've gotten more familiar with the trails and the flora and fauna along the way, I may answer questions. Stewards are never supposed to be confrontational — we may put in a call to the rangers or the police, but nothing more.

The stewards also host regular Saturday work days for two to four hours, like the one on the Hikshari' trail. As volunteer Josh Smith says, it's satisfying to see "that at the end of each work day, something very noticeably has improved — there's less trash, freshly painted signs, new stairs, whatever."

Josh Smith and I joined another work Saturday a week later at the bridge over the Widow White Creek on the Hammond Trail. There were a dozen of us, along with two county parks staff members and Craig Benson from the Redwood Community Action Agency. We scrubbed and prepped the bridge for painting with a UV-resistant coating designed to minimize fiberglass splinters and extend the life of the bridge. Despite pouring rain, volunteers also cut back burned brush from a fire that had ravaged a hillside above the bridge and the creek. The crew put in straw wattles to prevent erosion and minimize run-off. Everyone who walked by that day made a point of stopping to thank us. As coordinator and volunteer extraordinaire Stacy Becker says, "The amount of gratitude expressed by staff and trail users for the work we do has been phenomenal."

Volunteers finished painting the bridge during the October work day. Benson told me after the project was completed that "the trail stewards did a huge service as the cost of professionally painting the bridge would have been prohibitive."

Like any all-volunteer program, there is steady turnover in the volunteer pool and there's always a need for people who can take on more responsible roles. The county is incorporating Volunteer Trail Steward participation as it prepares to possibly absorb the 1,000-acre McKay Tract forest in 2014. There is a public out there with a rich reservoir of skills, energy and good will, and, as volunteer Melissa Zielinski puts it, the volunteer trail steward program offers a way for "citizens to take personal pride and ownership of important community resources."

Think you might want to join in? Contact a site coordinator or just come to a work day. A couple of hours a month can make a huge difference.

Upcoming Work Days

Saturday, Nov. 9, 9-11 a.m. Hikshari' Trail work day. Meet at the parking lot at the west end of Hilfiker Avenue. Contact Jane Stock (444-2357) or Susan Penn (susanpenn60@gmail.com).

Saturday, Nov. 16, 9 a.m. to noon Friends of the Dunes/Ma'le-l South Dunes work day. For more information, contact Friends of the Dunes at 444-1397 or info@friendsofthedunes.org.

Saturday, Nov. 16, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Arcata Community Forest work day. Check www.humtrails.com or email Rees Hughes (hughes@humboldt.edu) for meeting location.

Saturday, Dec. 7, 9–11 a.m. Hammond Trail work day. Check www.humtrails.com or email Stacy (sbecker@reninet.com) for meeting location.

Saturday, Dec. 14, 9–11 a.m. Hikshari' Trail work day. Meet at the parking lot at the west end of Hilfiker Avenue.

Saturday, Dec. 21, 9 a.m. to noon Friends of the Dunes/Ma'le-l South Dunes work day. Contact Friends of the Dunes at 444-1397 or email info@friendsofthedunes.org.

Watch www.humtrails.com for updates or contact the Volunteer Trail Stewards coordinator of the trail(s) you are interested in helping with to get on the e-mail contact list.

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About The Author

Rees Hughes

Bio:
Rees Hughes, editor of the Pacific Crest Trailside Reader, lives in Arcata.

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