Forest Service volunteers help with a project.

Forest Service volunteers help with a project.

U.S. Forest Service

Public forests rely on an invisible army of unpaid workers to help with trail maintenance, education outreach and a variety of other tasks.

On the Deschutes National Forest alone, 2,937 volunteers worked more than 53,000 hours last year.  

Despite the high number of unpaid workers it’s rare that volunteer projects go awry or cause damage like the snowmobile trail maintenance work on the Deschutes forest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General, the government entity that audits and inspects national forest operations, has no report of volunteer misconduct in recent decades.

But it’s also rare for volunteers to have the same level of access and equipment as the snowmobile clubs in the 2014 incident on the Deschutes.

“I have never seen, in my career, a volunteer organization have access to an industrial-sized excavator, especially unsupervised, and get to work on miles and miles of Forest Service roads and trails,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

Other signs point to lax oversight of the snowmobile clubs prior to the damage on the Deschutes forest. The official agreements spelling out the partnership and permissions of the clubs were two years expired. As volunteer organizations the clubs were required to provide documentation of annual volunteer hours, projects logs and trail reports. In some cases, those records hadn’t been turned in for years.

The 2014 incident was not the first instance of the clubs doing resource damage. Two years prior, a Central Oregon Snowbusters volunteer went overboard pushing over live and dead trees at Wanoga Snow Play and Sno-Park,  according to the law enforcement report. That damage didn’t prompt change in how the agency oversees the clubs.

Without volunteers, some recreational programs simply wouldn’t exist. Most national forests in Oregon have less than 25 percent of the funding they need to maintain trails. Not only do volunteers help with trail maintenance, they run campgrounds, teach about Leave No Trace principles and staff the front desks of ranger stations.

“The level of experience and the and type of experience that people can expect from their national forests and public lands throughout Central Oregon is largely dependent on volunteers,” said Deschutes National Forest district ranger Kevin Larkin.

Larkin said he will make do with the agency’s current budget level.

“But with increased funding, we could gain capacity, not only to do the work with our own employees,” he said, “but also to work hand in hand with those volunteers, get more good work done on the ground and ultimately to prevent future instances like we’ve seen here.”