The Keys to Making Ambitious Trail Partnerships Work

Equestrians work with Forest Service and Conservation Corps for effective trail maintenance

Organizations working together can tackle problems and issues that are too large for single organizations to handle.

by Back Country Horsemen of America

To face the reality of declining budgets at every level of government required to provide for maintenance and reconstruction of our national trail systems is a depressing and serious problem that trail users and the recreating public in general must face if the investments of over 150 years is to be protected. Hundreds of miles of existing trails have been placed on a rotation schedule of many years between annual maintenance.

Although these issues are recognized by all the land managers, the fact remains that appropriated dollars and agency budgets are falling farther behind and our nations trails are not receiving the attention necessary to even meet the level of a maintenance program that will maintain the status quo.

To this end, there have been a variety of approaches tried on different projects with varying degrees and level of volunteer commitment. There has been a very valuable period of time over the last 40 years learning how different entities can learn to work together efficiently and effectively. The process of how volunteers, youth, and agency staff can function effectively together is probably waiting for another few generations to judge and still learn more about how to better define a somewhat intangible or undefined work product.

The elements of trail maintenance are not very difficult to define. When the responsibility and the work force is one and the same, all the planning, organizing, staffing, logistic support, tools, supplies, and budgeting is in one set of hands. Each of these management and organization efforts are critical and must be incorporated from the front end of any project to ensure clarity and success.

The Shasta Trinity Unit of Backcountry Horsemen of America (BCHA) is one example of a successful partnership. The group has been very fortunate to have been involved with a proactive land management staff at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest for over 20 years. The Forest includes over two million acres of public land, and over 40 percent is designated Wilderness.

photo credit: Shasta Trinity BCH
California Conservation Corps members at work

California Conservation Corps members at work

Organized in 1973 in Montana, BCHA volunteer contributions nationwide reach into the millions of dollars every year. The role of BCHA is to provide help and assistance, but the ultimate responsibility for trails management remained with the agencies. BCHA units have worked hard to develop sustainable programs to provide effective and efficient volunteer support on this model.

The opportunity provided on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest was to develop a sustainable partnership among the California Conservation Corps (CCC), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and Backcountry Horsemen of America (BCHA). As in any business arrangement it is vitally important that a meeting of the minds of all the key players takes place, with the goals clearly articulated and understood. The process that has evolved over years ensures that each partner will do what has been agreed to. It is this trust and confidence in a mutual benefit that we are all seeking and willing to work hard for.

A good example is the maintenance and reconstruction of 550 miles of high altitude wilderness trails in the Trinity Alps of Northern California. Most of the old existing trails were originally built during 1850s gold rush days by stockmen and miners with substantial trail reconstruction and new trails by the Forest Service since 1910 and CCC of the 1930s. These trails are in both high alpine country and in lower elevations forested with red fir and pine five to seven feet diameter. Heavy snow years and blow down can drop up to 100 trees per mile that can close trails for years unless adequate numbers of crews are involved.

How the partnership process works

  • CCC provides backcountry crews of 15-18 youth aged 18 to 23 from late April through September. The CCC hires applicants from across the country along with capable crew leaders. Leaders live and work together with the crews in the backcountry for the season. Camp set-up and management, as well as trail and tread work is under the supervision of the CCC leader.
  • CCC’s enter into a contract with the USFS to pay for the season.
  • USFS plans the CIP projects and obtains grant funding if possible. USFS identifies the work projects, with input from others, for the season and meets with the partners in February to determine both work needs and available budget. USFS provides a supervisor for the CCC crews and other technical support as required.
  • USFS provides all camp materials, tools, and supplies. USFS also locates all camp and work sites.
  • USFS has ultimate responsibility for all trails management, crew support, and planning and logistics for all camp moves and resupplies.
  • BCH has the responsibility to help inventory storm damage, and locate trails work required to open early in the year possible.
  • BCH has the responsibility to help provide the stock necessary to move, resupply, and support each backcountry camp. Typically this is a 200-250 stock day commitment for the season, in addition to the volunteer packers, trucks, trailers, and packing equipment.
  • BCH has the responsibility to commit to the season project stock support required by April or May of each year.
  • BCH has the responsibility to coordinate weekly with the needs of both USFS and CCC backcountry camps and work project sites for logistics and stock required.

photo credit: Shasta Trinity BCH
Volunteers and staff relaxing after a long day

Volunteers and staff relaxing after a long day

Jon Sanstrom, Trails Manager for the Trinity Alps in 2006, called the Shasta Trinity Unit of BCH “the backbone of the trails program in the Trinity Alps.” Jon said “We could not do what we do without their invaluable help each season. We hope this partnership program can be copied throughout the country.”

Peter Lewis, a former CCC Backcountry Supervisor, shared his thoughts: “It is kind of like a big family that works together toward a shared goal. BCH get trails opened, CCC brings a youth group together for work in some of the most beautiful wilderness in the country, and the Forest Service gets organized committed help to meet its responsibilities for wilderness trails maintenance.”

It is important to realize that the most important requirement of all partnerships is be able to adjust when things change with either retirements, budgets, personalities, or management philosophies. In one case the commitment originally made by BCH was to provide half the stock required for the season. However, as a result of trail manager retirements, aging stock, loss of experienced packers, and fire demands on existing USFS stock, BCH was faced with increasing demands to provide more and more stock to service the CCC programs in the Trinity Alps.

How do you resolve a conflict like this? In our experience, positive communication stating the problem is critical, with the clear understanding that unless things change partners will no longer be able to fulfill our commitments made to the program. In this case, the USFS committed to support BCH recommendations with a major stock rebuilding program and hiring two competent packers.

For more information

For more about the Shasta Trinity Unit, Backcountry Horsemen of California, go to

For more on Backcountry Horsemen of America, go to

About the Author

Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) is a nation-wide organization that is committed to protecting the access of equestrians to public lands.

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