Montana Conservation Corps Rebuilds Wheeler Gulch Trail as Part of The "Fifty for the 50th" Campaign

Article, written by Laura Lundquist, appears in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Published July 26, 2014.

GALLATIN GATEWAY - Before last year, the Wheeler Gulch Trail was almost forgotten. Now it probably has the most attention of any trail in Montana with four organizations and agencies pitching in to restore it.

On Friday, seven high-school volunteers with the Montana Conservation Corps finished the fourth of seven long switchback segments of a new two-mile section of the Wheeler Gulch Trail.

The first week of their four-week stint complete, they will now move camp to their next project near Grotto Falls in the Hyalite basin.

But they're not the first crew of volunteers to work on the trail, and over the next few years, they won't be the last.

“This has been a fun project because so many groups are collaborating on it, and the Forest Service is supporting having all these groups up here,” said MCC Bozeman office manager Chris Nesset. “Wheeler hasn't been open for a long time, so last year, we worked just to find the bottom of the trail.”

The Wilderness Recreation Partnership, a local group of mountain-bike enthusiasts, wanted to expand the opportunities for bike riders outside of the Gallatin Wilderness Study Area, said spokeswoman Holly Hill.

They saw opportunity in the Wheeler Gulch Trail because they could link it into the South Cottonwood Trail and the Storm Castle Trail along the ridge top to create a challenging 18-mile loop that is close to Bozeman.

“We did three days of trail work last summer and realized that it was a much larger project than we thought,” Hill said. “The loop is the ultimate goal but it's probably a few years out.”

If the WRP needed help, this was the year to get it.

The Wilderness Act turns 50 this year so the Wilderness Society, Americorps and the Forest Service created the “Fifty for the 50th” campaign, helping to sponsor 50 conservation projects in wild areas across the country.

Because the Wheeler Gulch area is an access point to the wilderness study area and could contribute to the work of the Gallatin Community Collaborative, which is trying to determine the future of the wilderness study area, it was one of six Montana projects chosen.

Then as Sally Jewell took over as the Secretary of the Interior, she announced her intent to get more youth involved in projects sponsored by the Forest Service and National Park Service.

As part of that, Jewell announced in March that $6.7 million had been set aside to hire youth and veterans to work on public lands, a boon for the conservation corps.

That support, plus a Gallatin National Forest Resource Advisory Committee grant, allowed high school students to pick rocks and dig tree roots to level and smooth the Wheeler Gulch switchbacks for the past two weeks.

Previously, a user-made trail had made a straight steep descent into Wheeler Gulch from the area below Telegraph Ridge.

But that made for difficult hiking and caused the hillside to erode.

“The old trail dropped people straight into the drainage, but this will take them out,” Nesset said.

An excavator went in four weeks ago and dug a trail along the hillside, leaving rocks, branches and dirt piles in its wake.

For the past two weeks, student volunteers have camped at the top of the trail and slowly worked their way down each day, led by two Americorps volunteers.

“This is a little more work than I thought it would be. We're actually building a trail,” said Livingston student Surya Milner. “Hopefully I'm building muscles.”

This is Mateo Vargas' third year as an MCC youth volunteer so he knew what to expect. But he keeps coming back.

“It's fun to live out in the wilderness for a month with no technology,” Vargas said.

Forest Service employee Jeremy Kunzman, himself a former youth MCC volunteer, checks on the group's progress and lends a hand if needed. But it really hasn't been needed, Kunzman said.

“The leaders are doing an incredible job, but the kids are pretty much self-starters,” Kunzman said. “If we can get one more switchback on Saturday, that would leave only two shorter ones. Two solid days and we could be done.”

On Saturday, around a dozen WRP volunteers will return to do their part on the trail. Hill said WRP would probably organize a second volunteer day later in the summer.

Asked if they would return to help out, the MCC crew all nodded, having gelled into an efficient trail-building team. Livingston student Paulo Currie said it was a quick way to make friends.

“I'm planning to cycle it,” said Livingston student Jack Fry.