Opinion

America’s Trails Are a Wonder, and They Need Our Help

As dawn broke on a fall day in 2020 over the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, a crew of young men and women labored to fix a precarious footbridge below Wapama Falls — at 1,400 feet, one of the tallest waterfalls in the park. Several park visitors were swept off the bridge to their deaths in recent years during periods of high water.

Using pulleys and their combined strength, they struggled to maneuver a 400-pound granite slab into place on a new bridge abutment to support the span. Just as a crew member yelled across the ravine for more slack on the rope, a hiker strolled around the bend and stopped, seemingly dumbfounded. He tilted his head, covered with a wide-brimmed hat, to get a better look.

“What are you all doing out here?” he yelled.

The crew members were among thousands of mostly youthful workers who labor to maintain the trails that thread through America’s public lands. It’s hard, sweaty work, and there aren’t enough workers to do all that’s needed in these treasured and sacred spaces.

The trails they manage usher visitors to such places as the cascading waterfalls of Alabama’s Talladega National Forest, the rolling Allegheny Mountains and the lush, lake-filled landscapes of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The National Park Service recorded 325.5 million visits to its parks last year, up 4 percent over the previous year and the second busiest year on record. But the 236,000 miles of trails that wend their way through the parks, forests and deserts are often neglected and are certainly undervalued. That poses dangers to hikers and impedes access to the wonders that can be found on public lands.

These trails are testaments to the sheer human effort of generations of stewards who tended to them, often without pay. But fewer and fewer people are willing to do this hard work, either for money or for the satisfaction of donating their time and elbow grease.

“We only get to hire half the staff we’re actually hiring for” because there aren’t enough applicants, said Remo Fickler, a grizzled 23-year National Park Service veteran and trail crew supervisor in Yosemite, lamenting the decline.

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