Gary Monk, a retired pilot and Appalachian Trail enthusiast, was more than a bit surprised when the head of U.S. Forest Service in north Georgia asked him to join a panel with bikers, equestrians and off-roaders.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Monk recalled. “I don’t like the horse people and they don’t like me. And no one likes the ATV people because they’re so loud.”
Monk was joking, or at least playing on the well-defined trail-users’ tribalism, where hikers grumble that horses tear up trails or horse riders complain that bikers frighten their animals or bikers grouse that hikers are fuddy-duddies trying to take over.
George Bain, then the supervisor of the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forest, wanted to pull together leaders of the various groups to pick their brains and urge their support to maintain their beloved trails. Trail use has consistently gone up through the years, but U.S. Forest Service budgets and manpower have shrunk. More unpaid enthusiasts with shovels was a must, he figured.
Bain’s brainstorm two years ago was to get the trail-using factions in one room, get them to know each other and then work in concert. The groups already did trail maintenance, but some cross-pollination between the groups might bring a massing of forces and extra volunteers, he figured. So far, it has worked and Bain, who recently was promoted to a job in Montana, was named the Forest Service’s Land Manager of the Year.
“Through this effort, the number of volunteers coming out has continued to really grow,” said Bain, who figures the number of volunteer hours is the equivalent of 21 full-time employees working the trails. That’s significant because it is far more manpower than the Forest Service has dedicated to that job.
The groups, in conjunction with an organization named Forest Watch, met and coined the name CoTrails. Then they figured out what needed to be done and when. The first thing was to get a survey of the most used trails of the 850 miles in the system. The idea was to map about 250 trail miles, those that are eroded, that are worn out, that need to be rerouted. CoTrails received a grant that funded that study, which was finished this year.
“The U.S. Forest Service didn’t have a good database of trail conditions, nor did they have the manpower or money to maintain them,” said Dave Logan, a Roswell resident who is a member of the Southern Four-Wheel Drive Association. “We wanted to see what we had, what trails needed to be fixed, what needed to be closed or rerouted. Now, we as volunteers have a work plan.”
The information, he said, will help the Forest Service properly assign volunteers to specific projects. Before, they’d send five volunteers to a job site that needed 15 workers. Worse, they’d send 15 workers to a job that needed only five, meaning people spent a day volunteering and wasting their time. Those folks are not as likely to return, said Logan.
“Now we have a story to tell and we have specific needs,” he said. “It’s come out on this specific trail and we’ll do this.”
Logan laughed when talking about how the various groups viewed each other before CoTrails, especially those who four-wheel in jeeps, ride all-terrain vehicles or like to motorbike.
“We don’t do the extreme stuff like jumping in the air through flames,” he said. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about what we do. The stereotype is we’re not supposed to like each other. But we have a lot more in common - we all enjoy the trails, we all enjoy being outdoors. Now we share ideas, share contractors, share funding sources.”
The cooperation hit its stride about a year ago when Monk, the hiking guy, was at a loss as to how to restore an old 1930s-era shelter on Blood Mountain. The shelter was in a designated wilderness area, which meant no motorized vehicles or tools could be used and debris from the project had to be carted out. The main problem was that the shelter, built by hardy Civilian Conservation Corps members, had 14-foot oaken beams, and the structure stood 2.5 miles away up a steep incline.
Then came a brainchild at a meeting. Someone suggested, “Why don’t you talk to the horse people?”
A couple of phone calls later, “they came to the conclusion that the only way to get items up there would be pack animals,” said Carlos Martel, a retired Atlanta businessman who lives in Fannin County and owns a small horse farm.
Mules would be best, because the beams, at 200 pounds, were heavier than expected.
“At the end of the trip, Gary (Monk) rode a mule up to the top,” recalled Martel. “At the next meeting, he said, ‘I am an equestrian now.’ “
Larry Thomas has overseen trail volunteer programs for 22 years in the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forest, which covers 867,000 square acres. He said that assessing and rating the work needed on various trails now gives the Forest Service and its volunteers a focus.
“I feel the snowball is just starting to roll,” said Thomas. “It’s getting the word out for more volunteers. This is a very satisfying activity. You work all day and then walk past the fruits of your labor when you are done. You know you’re leaving a legacy. It’ll be there for generations.”
Said Monk, an east Cobb County resident who throws himself into such a project once or twice a month: “The future of public lands, especially in the Deep South, is dependent on volunteer support. We’ll keep maintaining it until we get too old or die. It’s ours.”
CoTrails can be contacted at cotrails.org.