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.


The Wilderness Society and the Partnership for 21st Century Conservation Corps Launch "Fifty for the 50th Campaign"

Washington, DC (June 24, 2014) – The Corps Network joined The Wilderness Society today to launch the Fifty for the 50th Campaign to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. This campaign will, through the Partnership for the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC), employ youth and veterans across the country in 50 conservation projects in 50 wild places. Project locations include places such as Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in Montana, Candlestick Point State Park in San Francisco, and Bladensburg Waterfront Park, just outside of Washington, DC.

The launch event featured a series of prominent speakers, as well as personal testimonies from various corpsmembers. Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society, kicked-off the event, calling the campaign a “chance to give back to wild places.” Other speakers included Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Liz Close, Intermountain Region Director of Recreation, Heritage & Wilderness with the US Forest Service, Mary Ellen Sprenkel, Present & CEO of The Corps Network and Co-Chair of the Partnership for 21CSC, Jono McKinney, President & CEO of Montana Conservation Corps, and corpsmembers Michael Richter (MCC), Anthony “Chako” Ciacco (SWCC), Agnes Vianzon (CCC), and Priscilla Flores (CCC).

The Corps Network’s Mary Ellen spoke about the creation of the 21CSC and its “special effort to engage the next generation to care for these wild places.” The Corps Network’s membership currently includes around 100 programs that engage approximately 25,000 individuals a year. With 21CSC and campaigns such as the Fifty for the 50th Campaign, the goal is to increase that number to 100,000 people serving on public lands annually. Although ambitious, partnership is key and as Robert Bonnie of USDA mentioned, “the challenge is in the next 50 years where we must build the next generation of stewards and leaders.”

The Fifty for the 50th Campaign is the perfect way to promote the goals of 21CSC; when completed, the 50 projects will have improved or restored more than 40,000 acres, built 887 miles of trails, planted 325 acres of trees, and corpsmembers will have spent nearly 200,000 service hours on public lands.

The Fifty for 50th event was part of Great Outdoors America Week (GO Week), an annual event in Washington, DC that draws hundreds of people to celebrate, advocate, preserve, and enjoy the great outdoors! A list of events going on this week can be found here.

While celebrating the outdoors, be sure to take part in the Wilderness Society’s We Are The Wild campaign. This campaign is designed to promote and share a collective wilderness experience and inspire preservation. While at GO Week take a photo or video and post it to your social network with the hashtag #WeAreTheWild. The Wilderness Society will launch a digital hub in July at to share all the posts. Together we can build the next 50 years of wilderness!

Blog Slideshow: