WEST AUGUSTA - Forest Ranger Elwood Burge thinks you have a gem in your backyard and you don't even know it.
Enormous trees created a lush and quiet canopy over his hike on the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness trail near West Augusta on Tuesday. Burge, who works in the North River district of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, said it's probably the largest tract of virgin forest on the East Coast.
He marveled at a poplar that he guessed was about 400 years old.
"Think about that. The 1600s, this thing was here. Think about what was going on in Virginia when this thing was a seedling," he said, adding there are others like it in this stretch of primitive forest. "The fact that it's on the East Coast, within a day's drive of a third of the country's population, is just mind-boggling to me."
He said most hikers never tread there because, until recently, even the earliest parts of the trail were blocked by fallen hemlocks, overgrown with vegetation or diverged onto false paths. Although volunteers keep up 125 miles of the district's 300 miles of trail, the rest sees minimal maintenance. Burge said the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Trail hadn't been overhauled in about 20 years.
"It was in such bad shape, we were about to lose it," Burge said.
Lucky for hikers, five young conservationists are living deep in the woods and overhauling the trail for the public's use.
The U.S. Forest Service has commissioned a team of workers from the Student Conservation Association to overhaul the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Trail from June through November. It's one of several job-creation projects in the GW&JN Forests being funded by stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The U.S. Forest Service has earmarked more than $1 billion for economic recovery in the 2010 fiscal year and expects to create about 20,000 private sector jobs, according to a press release by the forest service. Associated projects address conservation issues including climate change, tree health, wildfires, trail and road quality and energy-efficient facilities.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests have received $4.35 million for five major Recovery Act Projects, which include paving, stream maintenance and bridge replacements. It has set aside $1.89 million for trail maintenance projects.The Ramsey's Draft Crew
The team consists of Drew Foreman, 29, of California; Reuben Liebe, 24, of Tennessee; Caitlin Arnold, 25, of Connecticut; S.K. Piper, 22, of Michigan; and Kitt West, 25, of Virginia Beach.
The workers have each either finished college or are about to do so with some kind of environmental concentration. They love being outdoors, and when the recession made undesirable 9-to-5 office jobs even harder to obtain, they signed on to live in the GW&JN Forests for six months doing trail work and gaining conservation experience.
Arnold said a large part of their jobs is to obliterate false trails that have formed when past hikers have wandered off the path and inspired others to follow. They cover them with leaves and fallen branches found nearby.
"The area's a sanctuary for the ecology. We're concentrating the use to this one trail," said Arnold, explaining they want to prevent and discourage hikers from wandering off and disturbing nearby flora and fauna. "When that starts to happen, you're impacting this kind of sanctuary more than intended."
Each fallen tree they encounter is a careful challenge. Because the trail is in a wilderness area, gas-powered machines such as chain saws aren't permitted for maintenance work. The SCA workers instead use a variety of saws, including a five-foot-long cross-cut saw that requires two people and hours of practice to operate.
"The cross-cutting is really intricate and very involved," said Liebe, adding they have to assess the size and position of the log and the safest way to clear a path through it. "A lot of thought goes into each log you cut."
Foreman said the SCA crew works from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. rain or shine in six-day hitches, clearing about a mile of trail at a time. They live in an encampment and carry heavy equipment to the job site each day.
At the end of each hitch, they have four days off, where they sleep on the floor in an unfurnished SCA apartment in Verona. They receive a living stipend of $160 per week, plus a $3,250 AmeriCorps Education Award at the end of their service.
The workers said they're learning a variety of outdoor skills, such as packing efficiently and setting up camp. Liebe said they're learning important life lessons as well.
"Learning how to be part of a team and working effectively, it's an underrated skill," he said.
Burge said the team works well together and he's grateful for each member's contribution. He hopes it will help them in their subsequent job searches.
"Hiring's tough right now, but this will definitely help them out," Burge said about looking for both government and private-sector conservation jobs.