There are 2,249 miles of designated trails in the Flathead National Forest, enough single track to journey from Kalispell to New York.
Among its many tasks, the U.S. Forest Service is responsible for managing that expansive network of public paths, which provide beloved access to alpine lakes, towering peaks and wild valleys.
Needless to say, it’s not an easy or inexpensive job.
That’s where vital volunteer organizers have stepped up in recent decades to assist the federal agency.
Groups such as the Back Country Horsemen of the Flathead devote large chunks of spring, summer and fall to clearing and maintaining sections of trail.
Last year the local backcountry club and its nearly 90 members completed 13 projects clearing 146 miles inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness and 437 miles outside the wilderness. The group, with its herd of helpful horses, also participated in 13 trips packing in tools and other supplies for state, federal and other organizations.
Last weekend the Back Country Horsemen of the Flathead carried on a May tradition with the first trail project of 2017. The club met at Meadow Creek Trailhead near the South Fork Flathead River and spent four days in the wilderness, venturing nearly 30 miles of trail and cleaning up after winter. Working in concert with the Forest Service, this volunteer operation involves picking up all the debris that Mother Nature has dropped along the trails, including massive trees. To clear these trails, crews must use cross-cut saws because chainsaws and motors are illegal in the wilderness.
“I wouldn’t say it’s really hard work but it’s rewarding work,” said Steven Barker, the new club president and a member of the local chapter for more than 20 years with his wife, Verna.
“After you’re done you can look back and say, ‘Hey, we cleared that.’ And we come back year after year and a lot of these trails we can see the progress from the past.”
The Flathead chapter of the Back Country Horseman club was formed in 1973 by passionate outdoorsmen and women who saw the need to help the Forest Service while promoting common-sense use of horses in the wild.
“We’re trying to keep as many trails open as we can because if we don’t, the Forest Service will close them because they don’t have money to do it,” Barker said. “We clear as much as we can because the Forest Service keeps getting less and less funding.”
There are other rewards, too. Last year Steven and Verna helped pack in an organization with a group of troubled teenagers from Texas. They ranged in age up to 16 and had never been in the wilderness before. They were also glued to their smartphones and other gadgets. That all changed when they arrived in Northwest Montana and joined the Barkers on an adventure.
“It was funny, when we got them all together and packed them in — nobody talked to anybody because they didn’t really know each other,” Steven Barker recalled. “And then when we picked them up after five days, they were cutting up and talking. They had a good time in there and did trail work.”
The club will host multiple cleanup projects every month throughout the summer, and anyone is welcome to participate, even those without horses. Other volunteer organizations, such as the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, also provide opportunities to help maintain public lands and trails.
“Mostly I enjoy the people who go on these trips and I ride my horse along,” Verna Barker said. “It’s rewarding that we get these trails open, not only for us but for other people, too.”