Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado Restores State’s Flood and Fire-Damaged Trails

Particularly in the aftermath of disaster, volunteers are vital to the success of keeping public lands, parks, and trails open and well-maintained for generations to come.

by Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado


The Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs was one of the state’s most destructive wildfires in history. Voc managed six projects here in to repair the damaged landscape and trails.

First came the forest fires. Then the floods. As if Colorado’s worst-ever wildfires in 2012 weren’t enough, on September 9, 2013, there was no way to know a 200-mile stretch of Colorado was in the early hours of what experts would ultimately call a 1,000-year rain and a 100-year flood. After a week of rare and relentless rains, an estimated 10 people were killed, 2,000 homes were destroyed, another 18,000 homes were damaged, 30 bridges were lost, and 230 miles of trail were affected.

Though the floods heavily impacted 18 counties in Colorado, Boulder County was hit the hardest; in fact, the area picked up almost nine times its average September monthly rainfall in almost four days. In total, there was about $1.7 million in damages to Boulder County's trails and trailheads.

Jefferson County, another hard-hit area, sustained damage to its 14 of 28 Open Space Parks. Devastatingly, four of their top 10 most visited parks— totaling 1,090 acres— closed in their entirety.

Hundreds of volunteers helped restore the trail and surrounding tundra on Colorado’s Mt. Bierstadt, a 14,000 foot peak near Georgetown, that has suffered from erosion and trail degradation.

Hundreds of volunteers helped restore the trail and surrounding tundra on Colorado’s Mt. Bierstadt, a 14,000 foot peak near Georgetown, that has suffered from erosion and trail degradation.

Responding to the need to help restore these damaged— and closed— trails so that eager recreationalists could resume their outdoor activities as soon as possible, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, a statewide volunteer stewardship organization, dedicated a hefty portion of its volunteer projects to recovery efforts last year. Working closely with land managers along the Front Range, VOC was able to mobilize thousands of volunteers (that’s 12,480 hours!) who were eager to see their beloved trails re-opened and their majestic hillsides re-greened post-fire.

One major way in which VOC engaged volunteers last year was through its six fire rehabilitation projects at Waldo Canyon, near Colorado Springs. Following the Waldo Canyon Fire in June 2012 that blackened over 18,000 acres and left a left a chilling path of destruction in its wake, VOC approached the area’s Flying W Ranch— an iconic western tourist destination that was turned to ashes— to start repairing the hillsides around the Ranch, critical in the protection of the nearby Colorado Springs watershed.

“The Flying W Ranch was in the midst of celebrating its 60th anniversary when the fire began to come roaring down the hill at about 60 miles per hour. Following the devastation of the fire, we came back in here and didn’t exactly know what we were doing,” said Aaron Winter, executive director of the Flying W Ranch.

 

Teamwork on the Tunnel Gulch trail restoration

Teamwork on the Tunnel Gulch trail restoration

“When VOC first came out here, we were still in the grieving phase and it was such an overwhelming feeling to have these volunteers come out here and lend a hand.”

It didn't take long for the significant contribution of VOC volunteers to be felt at Jefferson County's White Ranch Park, either.

"With the floods, we had four parks that were damaged. One particular trail had been closed since last September. Without the help of VOC, it would not have been possible to open up this trail as quickly as we did; we would've been extending this out until 2016," said Jason Crum of Jefferson County Open Space.

All told, more than 5,100 hours were dedicated to flood repairs on nearly 12.5 miles of Front Range trails— nearly $1 million in donated labor to Colorado’s land managers.

“Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado is proud of our accomplishments in 2014, but we’re far from finished,” said Ann Baker Easley, VOC’s executive director. “This year, we will continue to devote significant volunteer and financial resources on trails that are still in need of restoration work, helping to rebuild stronger and smarter to help prevent future damage.”

Before and after: making repairs and cleaning up the popular continental divide trail near clear creek reservoir for safer access was a priority.

Before and after: making repairs and cleaning up the popular continental divide trail near clear creek reservoir for safer access was a priority.

VOC was founded in 1984 with the intention that anyone and everyone can play an important part on caring for the outdoors. In the past three decades, the organization has grown to include stewardship beyond our core competence in trail building and maintenance, and as a result, VOC is able to respond quickly and effectively to these emerging natural disaster needs.

As Colorado sees an increasing amount of urban and wildland fires in its open spaces and mountain parks, VOC has created important volunteer capacity tools through its Outdoor Stewardship Institute (OSI) volunteer leadership and technical training program. OSI has been a leading source of training programs since 1986, helping to prepare people to be outdoor stewardship leaders offering courses in topics such as trail building, maintenance, volunteer management and crew leadership.

“Skilled and effective leadership is critical both to delivering a rewarding volunteer experience, and to ensuring stewardship work is productive and sustainable,” said VOC’s director of programs, Dean Winstanley. “Since 2012, OSI has trained more than 900 leaders, not only to lead VOC volunteers, but also for government agencies and stewardship organizations across the United States.”

Replacing a log bridge

Replacing a log bridge

As wildfires have increased, so has the demand for skilled post-fire restoration volunteers. In 2014, OSI along with two partner organizations, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute, partnered together to create a premier post-fire restoration skills training. The partnership between these three outdoor stewardship organizations not only resulted in the development of a premier training, but also a companion training manual.

“This inaugural post-fire restoration training was attended by over 40 participants who had the opportunity to receive hands-on training in log erosion barrier construction along with seeding and mulching techniques,” said Winstanley. “Stabilizing hillsides post-fire and building slope structures that mitigate flood risk is critical to trail infrastructure protection, so to have skilled and knowledgeable volunteer leaders out on the ground at Waldo Canyon and other effected areas is extremely beneficial to all involved.”

VOC’s post-fire and flood trainings and volunteer efforts have helped Colorado’s economy and strong recreational assets recover quickly and effectively. "When we get volunteers out on the ground, it's actually valued monetarily in terms of the amount of work that's accomplished. VOC is able to accomplish more on a weekend with 40 volunteers than a public land agency may be able to accomplish in a year due to their limited amount of employees and funding," said Easley.

Particularly in the aftermath of disaster, volunteers are vital to the success of keeping public lands, parks, and trails open and well-maintained for generations to come.

For more information

To learn more about Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and all the ways to get involved, visit www.voc.org.