Who maintains 613 miles of trails in the Carson National Forest?

Taos hiker Tom Mavilia, at right, helps Craig Saum (a U.S. Forest Service ranger) cut out deadfall on the South Boundary Trail. Mavilia volunteers a day a week to aid the Carson National Forest in maintaining its 613 miles of trail.
(Photo by William “Backpackerbill” Kemdley)

In June, Taoseño Tom Mavilia assisted Craig Saum and Ian Barbosa, both Carson National Forest rangers, with a group of volunteers who came to Taos from many towns and cities around New Mexico to spend their weekend maintaining the hiking trails that are such an integral part of life up here in Northern New Mexico.

The 13-member contingent representing the New Mexico Volunteers for the Outdoors completed one of 20 annually scheduled projects in various locations to help keep New Mexico trails easily usable.

Have you ever wondered how we have so many great hiking opportunities so close to Taos? It is a key reason I moved out here to spend my retirement years. I’ve heard the same story from so many other hikers I’ve met since I moved here in 1994. I see many of them on our more popular hiking trails, like Devisadero and South Boundary, so easily accessed from town. In fact, El Nogal, the trailhead for both of these trails on U.S. 64 just a mile and a half east of Taos Plaza, is “likely the most popular recreation spot on the entire Carson National Forest.”

Those are the words of Saum, who helps manage and maintain 613 trail miles across the Carson National Forest. Saum is one of only seven trail crew members hired by the Forest Service each year for this gargantuan task. Luckily for us, there are hundreds of hikers who volunteer their time to help Saum and his team with the trail maintenance.

In fact, Saum said he gets far more individuals who offer help than he has the ability to plan for and direct. Because volunteers need supervision and Saum’s team is so stretched out in tasks to instruct, it’s helpful to get returning volunteers with trail maintenance experience, such as the NMVFO task force. This group usually has several volunteers who’ve worked on trails before who can also assist in overseeing the work. Along similar lines, the Carson National Forest recently put on a two-day “Trailmaster Workshop,” free to the community, in order to help develop and encourage local volunteerism and trail maintenance skills.

Members of the NMVFO group, along with Saum, Mavilia and Barbosa, on their first day out were able to clear 16 trees that had blown down across the trail during the winter, brush back encroaching vegetation, remove countless “obstacle rocks” from the tread and dig 12 “drain dips” to divert erosive water off of the South Boundary Trail. A key reason these volunteers were so productive is because three of the top executives of the 200-member NMVFO gave muscle to their team: President Gena Robertson, Project Committee Chair Chris Fritzsche and board member Mike Timmer, all of whom are hardened trail workers. Lisa Kokoski – who came all the way from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to work on the trail – was up and at it when the volunteer crew began work again at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Saum depends on the help of a number of groups for assistance. Among them are the Moreno Valley Trekkers, Hogan’s Heroes, Girl Scouts, Del Norte Mountain Bike Alliance – the 20-mile South Boundary Trail is rated as a premier mountain biking route – and the Enchanted Circle Trails Association. The Moreno Valley Trekkers and Hogan’s Heroes are volunteers who contribute to the maintenance of Angel Fire-area trails. And this September in the Pecos Wilderness, the National Smokejumpers Association will dispatch a group of volunteers to make camp on the banks of the west fork of the Río Santa Barbara for a week to rebuild a rustic log bridge, which got washed out a couple of years ago. Like Mavilia, many unaffiliated individuals also make a great contribution to the trail system’s sustainability.

Then, too, the Carson National Forest is able to contract out of its budget with other partner organizations, such as the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, to take on specific trail projects. Paul Schilke, recreation staff officer for the Camino Real Ranger District, had an exceptional RMYC crew rebuilding the Pot Creek Cultural Center trail and facilities this summer.

Generally speaking, hikers tend to take a proprietary interest in the land they love to hike. So, volunteering time to care for their trails seems built into their psyche. About 6,000 hiker-volunteers maintain the Appalachian Trail, for example. They put in 200,000 hours taking care of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,181-mile path. And, volunteers have been intensely active on the other national scenic trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, which crosses the Carson National Forest over beyond Tres Piedras in the vicinity of the Brazos and Hopewell Lake. Two of the six seasonal trail crew members in the Carson National Forest take care of this section of the Continental Divide Trail under the supervision of ranger Jeff (“Mugzy”) Mugleston.

Since forest rangers are my heroes, I spend a good deal of my time hiking with them when they retire and chatting with currently employed rangers as I meet them on the trails. Saum is of the latter breed, and he is avidly dedicated to doing his job. In fact, Saum often spends his days off doing more trail maintenance – without pay, of course.

Editor’s Note: Bill Kemsley is the founder of Backpacker magazine and a co-founder of the American Hiking Society.