Rather than lighting up a barbecue or setting off fireworks, Jeff Halligan spent the Fourth of July leading a troop of volunteers into the Payette National Forest. Halligan, the executive director of the nonprofit Idaho Trails Association, armed his crew with work gloves, crosscut saws, Pulaskis, brush clippers, hand saws and axes, and set them to work clearing fallen trees at the Duck Lake trailhead about an hour northeast of McCall.
Even at that high elevation, the temperature rose quickly as the day wore on. The group of six volunteers came upon the first fallen tree within 20 minutes. Halligan examined the bend of the tree, the ground beneath it and the safest way to saw it out. Within a few minutes, he had a volunteer on the other side of his crosscut saw and after fewer than five minutes of vigorous sawing, the sweet smell of fresh-cut wood filled the air and the trunk popped as it split apart.
One down; the rest of the trail to go.
The first time Halligan took a volunteer trail crew into the backcountry five years ago, they cleared nearly 50 trees from the two-mile trail up to Hum Lake. The next summer they cleared 40 trees; they cleared 35 the summer after that. They organized themselves as the Idaho Trails Association and devoted their spare time to maintaining backcountry trails around the state. Halligan said Idaho needs their help.
"When I ran the McCall district," he said, referring to his 18-year stint as the trail specialist for the Payette National Forest, "I had two five-person heavy maintenance crews that would go out and camp 10 days at a time and bust out the trail completely. Then I had two horse packers who would cut logs out of the trail and three pairs of people that backpacked and did water bar maintenance and took rocks out of the trail. We had 800 miles of trail to maintain."
Then the district that served the west side of Payette Lake, McCall and New Meadows absorbed Council and Weiser. Now, the same district oversees 1,500 miles of trail.
"And they have two people. Two paid trail workers," Halligan said. "They doubled the mileage and decreased the staff from 20 to two."
A fire that burned through the Duck Lake/Hum Lake area of the Payette National Forest in 1994 left hundreds of trees littering the trail. Going so long without maintenance, it was a big job for Halligan and his crew to take on. But that work likely wouldn't get done without the volunteer efforts of groups like ITA.
In 2010, the Back Country Horsemen of Idaho went to the Idaho Legislature with their concerns over the state of Idaho's backcountry trails. Lawmakers responded by declaring the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and the backcountry as a whole a disaster area.
"We [the Forest Service] immediately went to the Legislature and we were like, 'Yeah, come up with some money and we'll help fix that,'" Halligan said. "And they said, 'No, that wasn't the intent. It's just a disaster area and it's not our fault and we're not going to help fix it.'" Halligan said the Legislature has tried to use that as leverage in the debate for a state takeover of federal lands.
"It's just a way to show that the federal government can't do anything right," he said. "It kind of backfired on the Back Country Horsemen."
Politics were far from volunteers' minds on the Duck Lake trail July 4.
Chantelle Minarcine was happy to spend her holiday working on the trail, despite the fact that she's never been on the other side of a crosscut saw. She moved to Boise from Atlanta, Ga. with her husband to get out in the wilderness.
"We moved to Idaho without having ever been to Idaho," she said. "I was on a business trip and you know the Sky Magazines in the back of the seats? I was reading about Boise and I was sitting there thinking, 'Oh my God, it sounds like the perfect place to live.'"
They made the transition five months ago and Minarcine joined a hiking group, got a kayak and plans to learn how to ski this winter.
Minarcine said she admires the Idaho Trails Association and groups like it.
"Back East, everyone is just doing their own separate things," she said.
Part of the point of the Idaho Trails Association is to keep the traditional skills of trail maintenance alive, so Halligan never equips his crews with power tools or chainsaws. He takes special care of his crosscut saws and even started a small business restoring antique saws.
Volunteers on July 4 ranged from a man in his early 20s to men and women in their 50s and 60s.
Throughout the day, the crew cleared 11 trees. There aren't many trees left standing in the burn area, making for an easy day.
Not all days with the ITA are so easygoing. Halligan said he gets assignments from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for trails that need extra help. His organization works year-round and tackles about 45 miles of trail every year. Last year, they also built two miles of new trail near Warm Lake outside of Cascade.
Trips range from an afternoon of light maintenance to seven-day treks into the Sawtooths and the Boulder-White Cloud mountains. Those jobs use pack animals to get tools and gear in and a chef comes along to prepare all the food.
The land management agencies are in such dire need of help, though, that Halligan had to turn down three week-long assignments because the ITA is simply not large enough to keep up.
"The Congress doesn't feel that it's worthwhile to spend money on the Forest Service," he said, resting in the shade on the side of the trail. "They say people should volunteer and do more work. Well, here we are."