Hiking trails are the latest casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the coronavirus showing no signs of slowing down, trail maintenance organizations have seen their volunteer numbers shrink, leading to the cancellation of work parties.
That’s a bad sign considering the summer months are usually busy for groups such as the Skagit-Whatcom-Island Trail Maintenance Organization (SWITMO), Skagit Trail Builders (STB) and the Washington Trails Association (WTA).
“It’s limited what we can do,” Joan Melcher of SWITMO said. “We do have a few people who are involved, but it’s not as many as we are used to.”
After shutting down volunteer activities at the end of March, the WTA has gotten going again with strict protocols in place and smaller groups doing the work.
Northwest Regional Manager Arlen Bogaards said the WTA is getting about half the volunteers it normally would.
In the time the WTA was absent from area trails, it did its best to keep its volunteers engaged online.
“We started doing virtual events to engage our volunteer community, hosting Zoom gatherings we called candy breaks where volunteers could log on to chat with friends and find out what staff was up to and plans for the future,” said Bogaards.
The WTA also hosted virtual “campfire classes” on subjects from sustainable trail design to hiking in the time of COVID-19.
STB Executive Director Jim Taylor said a year ago his crew was busy building the Dovetail Bridge at Northern State Recreation Area.
“This year, since March, our public volunteer sessions have been on hold,” he said. “Until things with the virus improve, and the county achieves Phase 3, we can’t see that changing.”
Melcher said while some SWITMO members have stayed active, others have taken a more cautious approach.
“Some of our volunteers wanted to keep working and others didn’t want anything to do with it (volunteering),” she said. “It has definitely affected what we can do.”
SWITMO usually hosts two work parties a month year-round, maintaining various trails within the three counties.
The virus forced the group to cancel its work parties until further notice, though it did receive special permission from the U.S. Forest Service to work on the Swift Creek Trail near Baker Lake.
“There are all these restrictions in place and we take all necessary precautions,” Melcher said. “We want to do all we can possibly do to keep our volunteers healthy.”
The WTA is also making sure it keeps its members healthy, utilizing a electronic sign-in system, mandatory health screenings and smaller work parties.
“Most counties are at our level 2 and a few are at level 3, so depending on where you volunteer in the state determines crew size,” Bogaards said.
The trail groups sanitize all equipment before and after use. During work sessions each piece of equipment is used by only one person, social distancing protocols are adhered to, masks are worn and volunteers read and sign a pandemic policy and waiver.
“We socially distance (as much as possible), and wear masks as needed,” Taylor sad. “Now during Phase 2, our volunteer group size is limited to five individuals, and all are members of STB’s senior leadership.”
Taylor said it is a challenging time, but work continues on trails whenever possible.
“In a nutshell, we’re getting ready to go back to work,” he said. “We’re getting trails roughed in and growing our outreach capacity. We are fortunate, our partners are helping us make good use of this time. Hopefully we’ll be hosting public volunteer sessions again soon.”