WHITEWATER: Jobs program allows trail improvements

The Press Enterprise
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

By GAIL WESSON - The Press-Enterprise - View full article and slideshow

Deep in Whitewater Canyon near where the desert meets the San Gorgonio Pass, nonprofit groups and federal land management agencies met Friday to celebrate the half way point of trail maintenance by about 60 young adults along the Pacific Crest Trail funded by $4 million in American Recovery Act money.

Crew members shared the basics of trail work with agency leaders and how besides jobs, resume builders and work experience, they had developed an appreciation for the land.

Part way through her six-month crew internship with the Student Conservation Association, Lori Barrow, 23, of Peoria, Ill., had worked in Washington before coming to Mission Creek and Whitewater this week.

The 2,650-mile trail that stretches from the Mexican to the Canadian border crosses the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains. From Interstate 10 east of Banning, it zigzags over hills before dropping down into Whitewater Canyon where the Whitewater River flows.

Crews have done trail work in the San Bernardino Mountains and another project is expected next year in the Apache Peak area of the San Jacinto Mountains.

Without a job after graduating in May with a forestry degree in Illinois, “I jumped for the opportunity. I didn’t really think I would get it because I’m from Illinois,” Barrow said. “Every day I’m out here learning.”

She told visitors about gargoyles, a nickname for rocks placed to keep hikers on the trail, illustrated how her Pulaski tool is about the desired trail tread width and used loppers to clear a brushy obstruction.

t;Crew member Nettina Conkey, 30, from Happy Camp, said since age 19 she has crisscrossed the country on association and AmeriCorps crews working on trails and teaching environmental education in schools. “I actually want to lead a crew,” she said. “I love being able to go see new places.”

For Nick Mattson, 19, of Mount Vernon, Wash., this is all part of a master plan. He is earning college internship credit, and through AmeriCorps will receive a $2,300 education award.

“It’s so like a dream come true,” he said. The $160 a week stipend that trail crew workers get along with housing and meals “works out to be $3.75 an hour” but he’s enthusiastic.

“Over the years, there has really been a backlog of maintenance. This ARA crew has helped us alleviate the backlog,” said Anitra Kass, Southern California representative for the non-profit Pacific Crest Trail Association.

Towering cottonwood trees provided shade for the gathering at a former trout hatchery, now a part of the Wildlands Conservancy’s Whitewater Preserve.

The trail crew is one of five working now, down from a peak of 24 in summer, supervised by the non-profit Student Conservation Association. The non-profit Pacific Crest Trail association comes up with project lists, leaders and volunteers to help out.

The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which oversee much of the trail route, are partners in the trail program.

“In our treasure trove is this amazing thread of gold,” Jim Abbott, the BLM acting state director, said of the trail.

Fascinated by stories of how hikers and trail crew members have come to know the land, Ron Ketter, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region deputy regional forester, said he is encouraged that they are “passing on that love of the land” to others.