Spring Storm, Summer Solution: A case study in clearing an Arkansas trail

A tornado sliced a path through the Ouachita National Forest last April, passing through the Flatside Wilderness. This storm left in its wake a significant amount of damage along the Ouachita National Recreation Trail.

Well over a mile of the trail corridor was heavily affected, with over 50 trees of substantial size laid over in the path of would-be hikers.

In normal maintenance conditions, the Ouachita National Recreation Trail is serviced by the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FOOT Crew). This powerful storm had placed the trail maintenance efforts beyond the scope of regularly scheduled volunteer trips. This damage had not only closed the trail, it had put every other maintenance plan behind this needed attention.

Wilderness stewardship work is hard, but rewarding. The work is done in amazing locations -- areas so pristine that have they been set aside to be protected forever. The work utilizes traditional skill sets as mechanical and motorized solutions are not the prescription of choice to solve maintenance issues. The challenges of maintaining trails in wilderness are not insurmountable and they are not just challenges of manpower versus horsepower. The real challenge of wilderness stewardship is matching those who value the wilderness experience while also extolling virtues of keeping traditional skills alive --  and putting them to work.

A month after the April storm left its mark in the Arkansas forest, a plan came together to address the damage. Officials from the U.S. Forest Service were sharing a training session with a new stewardship effort by The Wilderness Society – the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS) -- when the plan was born. The SAWS effort was wrapping up seasonal training and had a group of trained and certified sawyers ready to go to work around the southern Appalachians. The idea that emerged? Give these skilled sawyers a week of service while assisting an area and a group really in need.

While there was hard work ahead in assisting the FOOT Crew in Arkansas, there was quick work needed in the offices of The Wilderness Society and Region 8 of the Forest Service. In less than a week, officials of both groups where able to pull together a cost share agreement that put the wheels in motion for a real solution to the trail problem in the Ouachita.

Ten days after the idea surfaced to send the SAWS crew to help with the storm damage, boots were on the ground in Arkansas. The SAWS crew spent the first full week of June working with the local FOOT crew to unwind the damage of late April. The weather was warm but so was the hospitality. Together in the 100-degree heat, the crews chipped (chopped and sawed) away at the piles of downed trees. There were huge trees across the trail and there were complicated cuts to be made.

Section by section, progress was made -- hampered only by the sweltering conditions.

The SAWS crew spent the evenings recharging and relaxing at a unique facility, Camp Ouachita -- a 1930s era Girl Scout camp. The only hiker to cross the path of the crew that week just happened to own a fine restaurant in Little Rock, and he insisted on feeding the team as a thank you. The crew might have been a motley bunch for the Brave New Restaurant but there was probably never a more appreciative group.

By the time we were done, the combined crews had cleared close to three quarters of a mile of trail. Experienced sawyers worked side-by-side with local volunteers just wanting to see the trail re-opened. Close to 30 trees were removed from the trail corridor that week, leaving a manageable situation for the FOOT crew and local Forest Service personnel.

It was a crew of about 10 that worked in the heat of central Arkansas but a great many hands played a part in finding a solution for those that love their trail and love the Flatside Wilderness. From Tennessee to Arkansas, Washington D.C. to Atlanta , many played a role in providing a summer solution to spring storm.