Trail Work in The Ventana Wilderness: October 2011

When my job in Alpaugh was finally done I was temporarily without work, and was invited to enjoy a few days of RnR in Santa Cruz. My internship with the BLM had been arranged through a company called The American Conservation Experience (ACE), and they had dormitory style housing there where I could stay and wait until my next job (Read: posts about Catalina Island) was to begin.

Santa Cruz is wonderful, it really is, but I decided I’d rather be working than sitting on my hands waiting to head down to Catalina. So after a few days of enjoying mild temperatures and the glorious Pacific I joined an ACE trail crew and was sent down to the Ventana Wilderness.

Trail work is… well it can be a lot of things. For starters, It is among the most basic forms of conservation work. It can range from simply brushing trails, to regrading and tamping paths, to constructing staircases out of rough stone, or replacing water-bars on eroded hillsides. It is incredibly physical work, but at the same time it is (often) quite satisfying. After all, by your hands a trail is made — if that’s something you’re into.

In Ventana, the work was extraordinarily simple, really. A few years prior to our arrival on the scene a “planned” fire event had gotten out of control (it happens) and had fried a huge chunk of the park. Our job was to recut a trail that had been destroyed when the flames moved through. People had reportedly been getting lost in the area, expecting a path that was no longer there.

Fire management is a tricky subject in California, much of the forest within the state could quite happily weather a small burn every few years. Unfortunately, artificially creating a natural-esque patchwork pattern of burns that both invigorate the natural landscape and don’t scare the residents speechless seems to be beyond the abilities of… well anyone alive really. As a result, much of California’s (very) flammable forested regions are not burned as frequently as they could be. In Ventana this meant that the region we were now cutting a new-old trail through had been the site of a disastrously hot fire that had killed hundreds of enormous Ponderosa Pines.

As a result, Ventana today represents an interesting (though hardly unprecedented) juxtiposition between death and regrowth. Yes, all the old trees are dead wood. Yes they creak omnimously in the wind, and YES they fell from the sky frequently enough that we were constantly on the watch for hanging dead-wood. But at the same time there was a staggering amount of life around. The photographs in this first post about the area will make an attempt to balance the two sides of the issue, in the future I’ll take time to focus on each in turn.

The flames that killed those trees were reportedly ~200 feet tall…. and I want to be a wilderness firefighter some day, what is wrong with me…?

The fire top-killed all the larger trees, but the seed bank survived the experience, Only a few years later we had our hands full chopping a new path into the undergrowth.

The still standing dead trees were a worrying hazard. No one wants to be near one when it finally succumbs to gravity…

The trail we were working on, that we “finished,” was incredibly rough. Our assignment was more to give wayward hikers something to latch on to rather than to create something perfect.

It’s obvious enough that the fire left horrific scars in the valley we were working in. To some extent this is a tragedy, it will be a long time before this area returns to what is once was. However this is not entirely a bad thing. Land Management (and with it Fire Management) is far from an exact science, and areas like this do hold potential for wonderful surprises.

In the coming days, as I tell more about my time in Ventana, I’ll attempt to show what I mean by that.

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Posted on January 18, 2012, in The Ventana Wilderness and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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