You never know who you might run into while volunteering in the backcountry.
Recently, a group of backcountry hunters and anglers and Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation volunteers bumped into zoologist and TV personality Jack Hanna while clearing trails in the Sun River Game Preserve.
“One of the great things about the wilderness is it democratizes everything,” Bob Marshall Foundation outreach coordinator Jessica Evans said recently.
Program director Rebecca Powell agreed. Of the 350 Foundation volunteers – ranging in age from 12 to 80 – who participate in 40 trail-clearing projects each summer, half are return volunteers who see the programs as a great way to experience the backcountry. Some new volunteers have never donned a backpack, and others are seasoned in the backcountry – to the Foundation, it doesn’t matter how much experience you have.
“It’s really not hard to get involved,” Powell noted.
To volunteer with the Foundation, put down a $75 deposit and the staff will do the rest, including providing food and an expert crew leader.
Projects range from easy to strenuous and are all in vetted Forest Service areas to ensure safety.
The mission of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, which is in its 21st year, is to provide conservation stewardship for the Bob by keeping trails open and clearing invasive weeds, in support of the increasingly overwhelmed and under-funded Forest Service.
In addition to the 40 trail maintenance projects yearly, the Foundation also offers Wilderness Ranger Internships and a Packer Apprentice Program, both of which started in 2016. In the former, high school or college students interested in natural resource careers are provided with paid positions under Forest Service rangers to learn the ropes and gain competency. This year, a young woman in the Wilderness Ranger Internship program was offered work with the Forest Service as soon as she graduated.
As for the Packer Apprentice program, two candidates are selected to study under master packers for a summer season, beginning with a week-long course at the Ninemile Wildlands Training Center and culminating with six successful packing projects. The goal is to train the next generation of packers – and conservation stewards.
Another aspect of the Foundation’s mission is to raise the next generation of conservation leaders, executive director Carol Treadwell noted. The Foundation is part of the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, which puts young Americans and returning veterans to work ensuring public lands access.
“Our genesis really was grassroots,” Treadwell explained.
A small core of backcountry enthusiasts, disappointed by trail closures and overuse, were told by the Forest Service to develop a volunteer organization to clear trails in a cost-effective manner, Teadwell noted.
But with the National Trails Stewardship Act about to be enacted, the Foundation needs help and funds. The Act will double the volunteers in 15 wilderness regions nationally, including the Bob complex.
“We’re at capacity for volunteers but need more to answer the Forest Service needs,” Treadwell said.
The internship programs were developed in part to fill that gap.
The Foundation has lots of fundraisers planned for the winter off-season, starting with the newly designated “National Public Lands Month” this September. The last day, Sept. 30, was already recognized as National Public Lands Day.
“Everyone is raising the bar; awareness is getting higher; all hands are on deck,” Evans noted.
Fall Foundation fundraisers and events include a picture party Thursday, Sept. 14 from 4-7 p.m. at Casey’s Whitefish, a volunteer appreciation night at Kalispell Brewing on Tuesday, Oct. 17 from 5-8 p.m., and a silent auction Friday, Nov. 3 at 5:30 p.m. at Whitefish Lodge.
Sign-ups for the 2018 summer season begin March 1. For more information about the Foundation, visit http://www.bmwf.org/