July 5, 2007

Volunteers work to preserve trail

By Andrew Edwards, Staff Writer
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin [Ontario, CA]

MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE - The job breaks down like this: A six-person crew has about three weeks to carry heavy tools along an eight-mile stretch of trail, digging earth and moving rocks in the High Desert heat.

The pay? Forget about it. Even showers are few and far between. And it's not like this is some chain-gang, either - people volunteered for the tiring work.

But sometimes just getting something done is its own reward.

"It was really fulfilling," volunteer Dustin Nelson, 15, of Maplewood, N.J., said about his first full day on the trail job.

Dustin is one of six high school students who got connected to the desert preserve through the Student Conservation Association. Their assignment: To restore the Hole-in-the-Wall to Mid Hills Trail that connects two campgrounds near the center of the Mojave National Preserve.

The teenagers were recruited from across the United States. Two paid supervisors oversee their efforts, and although the volunteers don't get any money, they can look forward to a backcountry camping trip at the end of their labors.

The Hole-in-the-Wall to Mid Hills Trail runs through the burn zone of 2005's Hackberry Complex Fire. The scorched and dead remains of Pinyon pines and junipers stretch across the landscape. On June 22, 2005, eight lightning strikes started a group of fires that blackened 70,000 acres of desert.

"No one had ever seen a fire burn that hot or intense," park Ranger Chris Mills said.
But the fire did not kill everything. Scattered stands of surviving trees still exist in this remote patch of the Mojave. The greenery that remains is impressive, but it's hard not to imagine how magnificent the park would appear had the fire not consumed a multitude of evergreens.

The trail was not harmed by the fire as much as the flash-flooding that followed the blaze, Mills said. The water damage caused many of the problems that student volunteers were assigned to repair.

The crew was working on a slope about 5,600 feet above sea level recently. The weather was hot and dry - but not as scorching as a typical day in the Victor Valley.

The work required heavy tools like rock bars and McLeods, basically a rake-shovel hybrid. The crew re-routed an uphill portion of the trail into new switchbacks and dug channels and rearranged rocks so future rainfall would be diverted away from the trail, protecting the path from erosion.

"This is the hardest part," said 18-year-old volunteer Hailey Lankowski of Washington, D.C. while she and two others used their McLeods to flatten an uphill section of trail and dig a small ditch for runoff.

On the second full day of work, with nearly eight miles of trail to rehabilitate, the crew had progressed about 300 yards down the path. Still, Lankowski and the others working at her side were optimistic that they would finish the job.

Even if they don't make it, Mills said future hikers would have a better trail than they would have had the volunteers not come to the desert.

"They may not be able to fix everything, but they'll fix the worst places," she said.