Trail: Construction and Maintenance
ACE believes that an ethic of care for the environment develops as a response to access and exposure to natural areas. Thousands of application essays from ACE corps members describe the transformative experience of hiking and camping in National Parks and Forests as the source of their motivation to serve, to give back to the lands that inspire them. Access begins with trails connecting people to spectacular destinations, so ACE is proud to specialize in constructing and maintaining hiking, mountain biking, equestrian and wilderness trails that complement the landscape and that employ engineering principles to limit impact on natural and cultural resources.
From the moment of construction, every trail itself becomes a resource to be managed, maintained, improved, repaired and respected. Trails have the potential to become a positive, complimentary component of the natural experience but when poorly constructed, or when agencies lack the human resources and funding to adequately maintain and repair them, trails can erode into a threat to the environment and a safety liability for the public.
Our hope and expectation is that corps members and volunteers graduate from ACE with a new understanding of well designed, constructed, and maintained trails, not only as an engineering achievement but also as an artistic vision of its designers. In the course of their terms of service with ACE, members cannot become trails experts, but are mentored by ACE staff and agency technicians who guide them to safely construct technically complex structures using advanced equipment such as gas powered rockhammers (pionjars), griphoists, and rock splitting and shaping tools.
Forestry: Thinning, Brushing, and Fuels Reduction for Wildlife Prevention
ACE’s national headquarters is located in Flagstaff, AZ, situated in the heart of North America’s largest continuous ponderosa pine ecoystem. Flagstaff is not only surrounded by dense forest, but also experiences low humidity for much of the year, high winds in the spring and summer, one of the nation’s highest rates of summer lightning strikes, and a seasonal influx of campers and hikers whose occassional unextinquished campfires or errant cigarette butts ignite catastrophic wildfires. Such hazardous fire conditions are not unique to Flagstaff, but represent arguably the single greatest threat to wildlife, general ecosystem health, and to the lives and livihoods of residents of forested communities throughout the western US. ACE’s California program is located in Santa Cruz at the base of the heavily forested Santa Cruz Mountains, which are defined by towering Redwood Trees but are also imperilled by the threat of wildfire driven by coastal winds. In Arizona, California and throughout the west, pressures of population growth combined with decades of ardent effort to extinguish every wildfire have created a circumstance in which small trees and brush that historically would have been cleared by natural fire now grow in dense, overly crowded clusters surrounding rapidly growing towns and cities.
The most effective solution to mitigate the risks of wildfire is also the most labor intensive. Throughout the west chainsaw crews remove smaller diameter trees and clear brush, depriving wildfire of the fuel it needs to grow in intensity, to move into the crowns of mature, old growth trees, and to blaze out of control destroying forested habitat, scorching wildlife, consumming houses, threatening human life, and rendering entire ecosystems to wastelands of stream-choking ash and sterilized soil.
Conservation Corps have been a vital part of the growing effort to train and engage the labor force necessary to restore our nation’s forests and to mitigate the destruction of wildfire. ACE’s Conservation Corps members are trained and certified to operate chainsaws while Conservation Volunteer members assist in the effort to pile and chip. Fuels Reduction/Forestry projects are often sponsored by public land management agencies such as the US Forest Service or National Park Service, but also through numerous non-profit and local entities such as fire safe councils, fire protection districts, and land trusts.
ACE is fortunate to have attracted and developed staff with many years of experience training conservation corps member to safely operate and effectively maintain chainsaws, brushcutters, chippers, and cross cut saws. Afton McKusick came to ACE in 2010 with 10 years of experience as a sawyer and trainer with the Coconino Rural Environment Corps, and in 2011 achieved a nationally recognized C-level Feller and Trainers Certification. Afton’s professional management of ACE’s chainsaw/forestry department benefits from numerous layers of support from the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry. Dr. James Allen, Phd, Director of the NAU School of Forestry serves on ACE’s Board of Directors, providing invaluabe programmatic guideance, and the NAU Ecological Restoration Institute helps train ACE members in the scientific background of fuels reduction.
ACE hopes that our corps members engaged in forestry projects graduate with an understanding of the theory driving fuels reducton efforts as well as with a set of practical skills enabling them to safely and efficiently operate chainsaws and other power equipment to restore forests to a more natural, safer condition.
Natural history is defined by both the evolution and migration of species. Entire plant and animal kingdoms are borne to new locations, take root, gain dominance, and eventually settle into a balanced role in their respective ecosystems. While the migration of species is natural and healthy when viewed from the perspective of eons, the explosion of human population corresponding with an exponential increase in technological advancement unnaturally accelerates the migratory process. As mankind invents the means to effectively shrink the world with jet planes, vehicles that traverse nearly every inch of unprotected land, and water craft that penetrate every remote creek or lake, all too often they bring the seeds of foreign species along for the ride. Taking up residence in ecosystems where no predators have evolved to control their populations, invasive plants and wildlife grow dominant, outcompeting native species and suffocating entire ecosystems.
From coast to coast, invasive trees and shrubs like tamarisk, Russian olive, Siberian elm, Chinese tallow and privet outcompete willow, cottonwood, box elder and other native riparian vegetation. These problematic species, from faraway places including Eurasia, Africa and the Orient, encourage the loss of regenerative habitat by inhibiting endemic plant growth through channelizing riparian corridors, slowing water flow, preventing natural flooding regimes, fueling catastrophic wildfires and dispersing allelopathic leaf litter. Much lower to the ground herbaceous weeds like Sahara mustard, knapweed, cheat grass and countless other non-native exotics overwhelm and outcompete natural ground cover and beneficial forage species.
In just one example of an impending ecological crisis created by an invasive plant species, the Southern Arizona Buffelgrass Coordination Center warns that “the buffelgrass invasion is threatening to transform the mostly fireproof and diverse Sonoran Desert into a flammable and impoverished savanna”. As innumerable invasions by exotic species similarly imperil fragile ecosystems, animals and insects that rely on native plants suffer, fire danger increases as thickets of weeds develop, and native species of plant, insect, and animal are threatened with extinction.
More pressing environmental issues are still solved through the sheer effort of organized labor, and the threat of invasive species is no exception. ACE’s Conservation Corps crews are trained to operate chainsaws to remove unwanted vegetation and are always willing to roll up their sleeves under even the most challenging conditions to dig up or pull out invasives by hand. In addition, they are certified to lead teams in the application of herbicide throughout the United States.
To give native communities a headstart on recovering, ACE crews collect seed, support the propagation of species by working in nurseries, replant denuded lands, fence restored plots, water natives, and monitor survival rates or for the return of the invasives. Regardless of the project, invasive species removal calls upon ACE members to demonstrate tenacity, perseverance, and a capacity for positive thought embracing the notion that every inch of land reclaimed for natives is a victory in practice as well as in spirit.
Surveys and Monitoring
Every activity undertaken by scientists and conservationists occurs within the context of extensive study and elaborate consideration of need. No trail is constructed, no fence installed, no acre of land thinned, no herbicide applied, and no weed is pulled until the conservation community satisfies the protocols of laws designed to prevent even well-intended projects from reckless or potentially counter-productive implementation.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and parallel state regulatory authorities such as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compel scientists to make informed land management decisions supported by evidence-based statements of need. While prevailing theory and common practice help guide restoration and conservation priorities, the simple fact remains that most data supporting ecological need must still be gathered by crews of surveyors on the ground, armed with GPS units, pens and paper, and fueled by old fashioned powers of observation.
Crews walk representative transects, count invasive plants, take measurements of forest density, observe plant health, note the chirpings of birds, determine presence or absence of animals, delineate archaeological sites, map areas of impact, capture, study, and release fish, and install cameras, insect traps, or nets to measure movements. This extensive process of surveying, monitoring, and mapping data requires a tremendous commitment of labor and represents an often underestimated commitment by armies of scientists and biologists. Participation in survey and monitoring projects represents an invaluable experience for ACE members who are exposed to the science, rather than just the labor, behind conservation activities. ACE considers survey and monitoring to be the engine of conservation and are proud when our corps members and interns are afforded the opportunity to participate in the process.