Angelina/Sabine National Forests

From May 6th to May 15th, the Green crew was hard at work in the Pine-forested utopias of The Angelina and Sabine National forests.  Spring floods had left many of the recreational areas of the forests unusable and the summer camping season was fast approaching.  Our primary overall task was to remove downed trees and trash from camping areas and thoroughly clean any campground structures.

Between rampant thunderstorms and driving rain, our crew ran chainsaws through countless tanks of fuel to buck the large pine trees littering campsites into pieces small enough to move.  When enough timber was removed, we were able to come in with tractors, trimmers, and mowers to manicure each individual campsite.  Over the eight days that we spent in the forests, we bounced back and forth between 4 of the major recreation areas and covered more than 500 miles on the road.  All sites that we visited were opened to the public the day we left.

Weather played a major factor during this trip.  Rain was a threat almost every day.  Aside from the satisfaction of working to open public land that we all cared deeply about, this hitch was an unbelievable team building experience.  We received two new members to our crew on the day we left.  Through all of the time spent dodging the rain, sliding through the mud, and sweating it out In the unbelievable humidity, we found solace in each other’s company.  We returned to our Austin base exhausted, but as a smiling and cohesive unit ready to take on the rest of the season.

Jeremy Carson – Conservation & Disaster Crew Leader (Green)

Byers Trailhead

The average adult walks 10,000 steps a day. It may not seem like a lot, but over time that is 70,000 steps a week, 300,000 steps a month, and 3,650,000 steps a year. 3,650,000 steps taken every year of each one of our lives. That’s a lot of shoes to go through in our lifetime, but an even greater amount of dirt that is moved around on the surface of the planet.

This concept means that walking paths are extremely important in conservation efforts. They allow us to experience nature without trampling endangered plants and animals and changing the landscape.

Over time, surfaces like trails can wear away, or if not done correctly can wash away. Recently, Gold crew had the opportunity to help restore 0.013 miles of trail in Byers Trailhead in Austin. Over the week, my crew put in two water bars, seven check steps, two drains and seven box steps. Each of these are important in keeping the trail maintained. Water bars allow water to wash off the sides of the trail without taking sediment away with it. Next, check steps allow water to wash down the trail without moving sediment. Then, drains allow water to move off the trail naturally, so the trail does not erode. Finally, box steps help the trail decline at a lower grade, so hikers feeling like they are walking down steps instead of running down the side of a mountain.

Working on this project was a lot of hard work, but a very rewarding experience to see the end product. The next time you have the chance to walk a trail, take a closer look at it. Even though a trail looks like it was naturally placed there, there was a lot of design behind the scenes in placing and forming it there.

Livy Kelley – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Gold)

Grasslands Round Two : Wet Paint

This was our second time working with LBJ grasslands parks and services, though we were in a new location. Our campground was adjacent to a reservoir, a beautiful site (and, personally, a enjoyable way to cool off on the hot days, though most didn’t partake).

The first day had us working with two of the guys from our last hitch. We removed and replaced an old fee collection box at the entrance to one of the campsites, which included some metal poles, a lot of concrete, and a skid steer. The rest of the hitch looked to be less flashy, with painting as the main task. There were fences, gates, bathrooms, and garage doors that were chipping and losing their luster, along with other tasks such as clearing ash from some fire pits, breaking up others with sledges and picks. There were horse trails in need of some lopping, and leaves to be cleared from a camp, to make it more manageable for mowers to mow. While some finished the fee box, others went to start painting fences.

After Tuesday, we worked solely with Colter, who was stationed in the area. The next few days are a blur. It stormed for half days and full days, with lightning deterring our efforts to lop, and rain making painting quite questionable. During these times, we managed to clear some fire pits and leaves, lop a minor amount of trail, paint a garage, and do our best, if somewhat in vain, to stay dry. After the rain cleared, the days became more normal. Raking and blowing leaves, painting bathrooms, walking horse trail maintaining corridors, and breaking up old pits to be replaced. Breaking up the pits was my favorite task for expending extra energy, and it was satisfying take apart something so sturdy. The delays meant we wouldn’t be able to help with putting the pits in, but just having days that weren’t total washes was appreciated. The rain still had its effects after ending, as the horse trails were largely flooded, with some areas looking like swamps, and certain crossings ending up as rushing streams. The one I encountered would have been unpleasant to cross, but there happened to be a fallen log large enough to safely cross. My crew mates found such rushing waters on the other trails, sometimes able to cross, sometimes forced back the way they came. It was more difficult than if it had been dry, but also beautiful in a way.

A good deal of people seemed to enjoy this land. Throughout our stay, there were always trucks parked at various campsites, with the boats they carried out on the water.  A group of high schoolers came by most evenings to jump into the reservoir from a dam. There were various vehicles and campers that came by, stayed for a while, then went on their way. It was nice to see so many enjoying the park. One night we enjoyed some sightseeing by visiting Paris. Surprisingly it took less than an hour to get there and the Eiffel tower ended up being a lot smaller than expected. The last couple days were purely painting on my end, going from gate to gate. I wish we’d had more good days, but was still a moderately productive, if somewhat relaxed hitch.

James Moriarty – Conservation & Disaster Crew (Silver)

Copperfield Trail

Over the week we ventured to a forested neighborhood park to to remove debris and erect Box Steps and Waterbars. Dawning waders, we braved the creek, freeing it of fallen trees and forgotten litter.

After, we split into three teams, two making making box steps leading in and out of the ravine, and the other works on the trail leading to it. The box steps twist up and down the ravine. These wooden squares are constructed from harvested wood from dead Ashe Juniper found in the area, and they are hammered into the earth with rebar. One by one, they’re built on top of each other, ascending up the hillside along the trail.

The trail leading to the ravine was also maintained. The berm was trimmed, waterbars and drains were dug, and check steps were placed, all to reduce the ever present threat of erosion.

It was a delightful experience, with Blue, White, and Gold crews all working together. And meeting the many trail going thanking us for our service.

John Currey – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member

Nebraska Deployment

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Another deployment down, and I’m sure it won’t be the last one. Nebraska, to me, was a very special deployment. I had the pleasure of connecting with some amazing home owners, connecting more with my crew, and meeting more Austin office folks I would’ve never had the chance to meet any where else.

Our quarters were interesting enough to say the least. We stayed in this almost 100 year old auditorium that me and about everybody else were sure it was haunted. We all stayed up way too late, playing hide and seek through the whole building with the lights off, making up our own games with a frisbee, and sharing laughs over some awesome family dinners. Getting to connect with so many cool people over such a short time was truly a delight, and i will remember some of these people forever.

The work we were doing was so touching as well. Most deployments you’re inside of homes, swinging around tools, and not reaching out as much. This time around, the main part of the work load was meeting with survivors, and aiding them through the process of getting back on their feet. Working in distribution centers, MARC’s, contacting volunteer organizations, doing anything we could to help these folks out from the back ground, technological side, rather then the boots on the ground, tools in hand approach.

Overall, Nebraska was a blast, or as we said, “NeBlastYa”. That was a very popular phrase over the month, and I think it represents the experience very well. Meeting and connecting with so many spunky characters, helping and reaching out to so many amazing home owners in Nebraska, and having overall the time of your life there in the midwest, is something I will treasure for a long time.

Trevin Balzer – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Gold Crew)

Purple Crew at Fort Davis: April 22 – May 15

“Welcome to west Texas, where everything bites, pokes, sticks, or stings,” chuckled our project partner, John.

It was the first morning of our two ten-day hitches to the Fort Davis National Historic Site.  As our crew surveyed the territory, it was easy to see what John meant: dense patches of Prickly Pear Cactus were scattered throughout the land, as well as an array of Mesquite trees, all in different stages of growth.  Colorful moths and butterflies flew overhead while gigantic ants and beetles buried themselves in the dusty, coarse earth. Rocky mountains, several hundred feet above us, surrounded the small but bustling town. We were only seven hours from Austin, but it felt much farther.

John welcomed us to the town of Fort Davis, built throughout the mid-1800s to guard west Texas and allow safe passage on the San Antonio-El Paso road, a journey of 600 miles that took pioneers to California to mine for gold.  Named for the then-Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, the fort served as a fully functioning town, with a store, chapel, jail, and family housing.

Our job for the next twenty days was to cut mesquite along the old road in order to restore it to how it would have looked in 1850, with small patches of grass here and there and a few bushes.  We were to use herbicide to kill the Mesquite after cutting it. After a few hours of work on the first day, we realized that this was no easy task. We had only brought a few chainsaws with us, for we were unaware we were cutting Mesquite, which has denser trunks than most trees we cut.  Brush cutters were no worthy opponent for this stuff. Frequent cries of “ouch!” and “oww!” stood out among the sounds of machinery, as Mesquite has a way of grabbing onto one’s skin with its thorns, as if retaliating in anger for being separated from its roots. A quick fix to the recurring stabbings came in the form of a pitchfork, my personal new favorite tool.  Our other project partner, Bill, literally saved our skin by bringing us three shiny pitchforks and a wheelbarrow. We were immensely grateful and more productive, for the pitchforks made it easy to carry a clump of mesquite almost the size of a person.

A few days into the project, the weather decided to take a turn for the worse.  A large thunderstorm rolled through, depositing hail throughout the fort. Our project partners agreed to let us stay in a renovated historic house in the fort as a reprieve from the unpredictable weather.  Originally a house of a high ranking official, this house now served as a storage unit and a place for re-enactors to get dressed in the finest 19th century military garb. Of course, one mention of the possibility of ghosts had us scared but excited, which led to pranks galore. We stayed at the house off and on throughout our time at Fort Davis, for which we were immensely grateful during the cold nights and mornings in the mountain air.

Despite our hopeful attitude, our chainsaws had issues throughout the trip, which slowed us down considerably.  Even though we brought our favorite saws, they didn’t agree with the heat of midday and continual use, and one by one they began to fail.  We doctored them as much as we could in the field, even switching out parts and eventually ending up with one completely broken saw and two kind of working ones.  We vowed to bring as many saws as possible the next time around to avenge the fallen brethren.

As we made our way farther down the road, we had plenty to look at.  It seemed like everywhere we looked, there were artifacts. Some were clearly recent deposits, like soda cans and bits of plastic (so, actually trash), but we found some pretty amazing things.  Pieces of plates and glass, a uniform button, and even an old stove was located around the site.

Nights at camp were a lot of fun.  We played card games and read books, and we discussed various fan theories about the outcome of Avengers: Endgame. Crew member Sophia and I listened to her playlist of aggressive orchestral music as we completed a nature hike on top of Fort Davis at dusk, stopping every now and then to look at plants and cacti from the Chihuahuan desert.  Javelinas and deer strolled around our camps frequently, and a particularly happy skunk ate dinner with us one night (he was uninvited, and would not leave). At the fort, our two new horse friends, Soldier and Dudley, greeted us every morning with pleas for forehead scratches and pats.

On the second hitch, we arrived to work armed with six chainsaws. We had our method down to muscle memory at this point: a sawyer would saw through a mesquite tree, their swamper would rake the remains away with a McLeod, a pitchforker would come by and scoop all the remains up and take it to the side of the road, then someone would do quality check with loppers, then lastly, the herbicider would come by with a backpack sprayer and coat all the cut ends.

The bad weather continued throughout the second hitch, and we had several days where we were able to work for half the day and then take a few hours for education.  We went to the Star Party at the McDonald Observatory where we learned many constellations and got to look through telescopes, and on another day we went to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and tour their collection of cacti and desert plants with Bill as our tour guide. We also met a visiting high school group and learned how to make adobe bricks to go on the restored structures, which was a muddy but satisfying experience.  Lastly, we took a full day to assist the museum technician in cataloging artifacts! We cataloged original pieces of pine wood from the structures as well as little items like books, oil lamps, and bullets. I was overjoyed to be able to assist in museum work and view artifacts up close!

Overall, this experience was something I will never forget.  To be able to spend so much time at a place we all enjoyed was a blessing and I gained a newfound appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into historic preservation.  Many thanks to my spectacular crew for all the laughs, including but not limited to the Porter’s voice, gender bending photo filters, low budget horror movies, and the endless jokes.

Love you, Purple!

Caroline Fangman – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Purple Crew)