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What DOES it take.....

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What DOES it take.....

Postby North 350 Blades » Wed Feb 20, 2013 1:01 pm

....to keep the trail open and functional?

The TL / DR version is a LOT.

The longer version.....
I'm going to illustrate the magnitude of the efforts to keep the PCT open by talking about our crew, on our focus area of these last several years. Factor this up appropriately for the entire 2663 or so mile length of the trail.

Our crew, the North 350 Blades, has been mostly focusing on a 30 - 40 mile stretch of the PCT since we formed in 2010. This section, immediately south of Snoqualmie Pass / I-90 in Washington (Approx Trail Miles 2379 to 2414) was in rough shape when we got started. The local USFS district didn't have enough budget for a properly sized trail crew for many years (they have had enough budget for only 3 people for hundreds of miles in their district). Access to this section of the PCT, while good, is awkward and time consuming if you're going to places south of about 20 miles south of Snoqualmie. Washington Trails Association has put in a lot of effort on this stretch for years, but by themselves it wasn't enough to stop the slow deterioration and overgrowth of this section of the trail.

By the numbers: The Blades put in 400 hours in 2010. Between 1500 and 1600 hours in 2011. In 2012, we did another 1500 or so hours on this section, plus 600 more hours or so on training and other parts of the trail here in Washington. So, in total, our crew put roughly 3500 hours into this 30-40 mile section over the past 3 years. In addition, WTA has put in (I'm guessing, since I don't have access to their records for this section) well into 4 digit numbers of hours these last 3 years as well, in a well coordinated tag team effort between the crews.

So, for those hours, what improvements has the trail seen? Combined, The Blades, WTA and the USFS crews have cleared brush from about a dozen of the worst miles of over grown trail just about anywhere on the PCT (in places, we're talking chest high huckleberries that used to touch from either side of the trail - totally fun on a wet, cool fall morning :twisted: ). There has been several miles of tread that has been fully restored to standard. Gullied, eroded tread has been repaired and filled to a smooth surface. 2 sections of mud holes that used to be the "trail" have had raised trail bed (turnpikes) built over them totaling a couple hundred feet. Clogged and totally buried cross trail drain pipes have been dug out and restored to a well flowing condition resulting in reduced erosion in the future. Drain dips and water bars, clogged by years of silt and sediment, have been cleaned out, insuring proper drainage of the tread. Tread that was slipping off the side of the mountain has been re-dug to proper width and out slope. Our crew has cut out over 100 fallen trees, while the USFS crew took care of the rest. Many check dams / steps have been installed to slow or halt erosion on sections of the trail where it's impossible to drain.

Our task on this section is yet to be complete - heck, maintenance is NEVER complete. We figure it will take another year or two of focused effort to get this section to the point where it's more or less "up to snuff" and we can focus our efforts more toward log out and annual maintenance, in lieu of the heavy restoration of these last 3 seasons.

What will that take, to maintain this section, you ask? Well, figure a 3 person chain saw team can cover about 5 miles a day if there aren't too many logs down. Add in a couple of folks to that to clear the drains and do some light brush cutting and that's a 5 person crew for a day for 5 miles of trail - call it 40 to 50 hours of volunteer time.....just to log out and do a quick cleaning on the drains with a bit of light brush trimming. Of course, that assumes good road access at the start and end of this 5 miles to allow a one way hike. If the blow down is heavy or complex, it might take a day to cover a mile. Out in Wilderness, it'll be all cross cut work so it'll take more time than with chain saws. If there is a large or complex tree down, one can spend hours, or even days, on just a single tree in Wilderness. All that brush we cleared is growing back - we figure it'll take 15 or so hours per mile, on average, to keep it clear once we get things opened up. So that would be ~450 hours a year for "our" 30 mile stretch (and believe me, it's a LOT faster to cut back the brush when its only knee high than when it's chest high). Of course, that's outside of Wilderness so we can use brush saws. Hand lopping takes 3-5 times more labor. Then there's the winter damage to repair - some times when trees fall, they tear holes into the trail as the root ball is torn from the ground, there's the raging creeks that destroy bridges, the snow loads that break bridges, the land slides that sweep the trail away, signs that vandals destroy, and just the every day wear and tear.

Our plans: For 2013, we're going to do a systematic log out of these trail miles south of Snoqualmie as soon as the snow melts - call it July and into August. We have a series of day projects planned for later in the season (September and October) to clear more brush and work more tread issues. We'll be doing a 3 day car camp weekend in August focused on fully restoring another mile or three of the roughest remaining stretch of this part of the trail.

Our crew will also be branching out from "our" section of the PCT south of Snoqualmie Pass - going both north and south of this section to give more of the PCT in Washington the Blades kind of treatment. We have a couple one week long back country trips into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness north of I-90 on tap, a 3 day weekend working issues near Chinook Pass / Hwy 410 to the south, and going back north, we'll return to the northbound side of Stevens Pass / US2 to work the trail on a few day trips.

What we, and probably every crew up and down the length of the PCT needs, is YOU to come on out and volunteer your time. There will be tools, hard hats and experienced volunteers to teach and guide you through your day (days?) of effort. At the end, you'll look back and see clear, well maintained trail where before there was too much brush, too rough of tread or too many winter blown down trees. Call or e-mail the PCTA volunteer coordinator and they'll put you in touch with a volunteer crew near to you on the PCT.
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Re: What DOES it take.....

Postby postholer » Wed Feb 20, 2013 4:14 pm

WOW! This is fantastic information! For the last 30 minutes I've been sitting here with my calculator mulling it all over.

I have some ideas for you. Keep in mind I'm almost completely ignorant of the activity and management of trail maintenance. So, if something sounds incredibly stupid, you know why!

Ok, here goes.

This statement got most of my attention:
By the numbers: The Blades put in 400 hours in 2010.....1500 and 1600 hours in 2011.... In 2012 we did another 1500.... our crew put roughly 3500 hours into this 30-40 mile section over the past 3 years....WTA has put in ...well into 4 digit numbers of hours these last 3 years as well...


So conservatively, let's say 4000 hours for 40 miles of trail. The first thing that pops out is this:

If every foot of that section was touched each mile received 100 hours of labor. Put another way, each 500 feet of trail received 10 hours of labor!

But it's highly unlikely every foot of the trail was touched. If half of that section was actually touched over 3 years, 20 miles worth, we're up to 200 hours of labor per mile of trail.

Something seems wrong with that. Again, I'm uninformed here so I may be missing the obvious. However, based on that here are my thoughts in no particular order:

Labor is the resource you are most short of.

Not enough time is being spent on actual trail work, too much is spent on logistics.

Trail workers have an unnatural emotional fettish towards chain saws. You'll never have trouble finding a saw crew looking to clear out blow downs. So don't sweat the blow downs early in the season.

Save the big stuff for last. 2 early season maintenance scouts armed with a 24" bow saw and loppers can clean out around individual blow-downs in very little time without ever touching the tree trunk, making it easily passable for hikers.

Give the highest priority to the low skilled bulk work, like brushing in wilderness areas, maximizing the use of your scarce volunteer labor. Leave the saws and all that support equipment at home. Saw crews just became brush crews. Logistics are minimal. Carry lightweight loppers, bow saws and optionally carry McCleod's/Pulaski's if the labor is up to it. Make the 'easy' bulk work the priority at the beginning of each season.

Walking in mud or less than ideal trail is far more desirable than blocked trail. Now that the brushing is done, go back and work on some of the larger trees/blowdown fields, ie, time consuming logistics. Start with obstructions that are between your pack animals and a particularly bad piece of trail that requires restoration.

If any time is left at the end of the season, go work on the really time consuming work, trail restoration. If it doesn't get done this season, wait till next. It won't all get done, ever, as you've pointed out!

Thanks for all that you do and listening to my ramblings!
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Re: What DOES it take.....

Postby North 350 Blades » Thu Feb 21, 2013 11:13 am

More to come.....quickie reply:

On this particular section, we're doing heavy restoration work since this particular part has been under maintained for years. To just run with your calc of 200 hours / mile - yep, that sounds about right to do heavy restoration. Of course it can be a lot higher as well.

An example: winter damage can take a lot to fix. One of our 3 day weekends in 2011 was mostly spent fixing winter damage. We expended 231 hours to fill in holes torn in the trail as trees were knocked down, roots and all. These are no "girly man" holes - we're talking on the order of 2 feet deep, 6 foot wide and 6 foot across. We had a couple of those to fill in (one 5 gallon bucket full of rock and dirt at a time), plus a minor reroute around a jumble of trees that we simply couldn't cut out, plus clearing half a dozen or so trees that we COULD cut out. At the end, we had most of the day on Sunday left, so did some brushing in the area as well. In total, the damaged section was less than a tenth of a mile long and we hand brushed several hundred feet of light / moderate huckleberries. So, that worked to very roughly 1,000 to 2,000 hours / mile - depending on how many (tenth's of a) mile one wanted to take credit for. Of course, when we passed through that area in 2012 heading further up the trail to build a turnpike over a mud bog, it would be difficult to know there was a huge issue there the year before unless you knew where to look. We also didn't need to touch the 2 miles between the 2011 repair and the mud bog....so those miles cost us nothing....at least in 2011 and 2012. We'll see what this winter holds for them.

The ball park long term number from the Trail Operations folks is 200,000 hours a year, which works to about 75 hours / mile / year over the 2663 or so miles.
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Re: What DOES it take.....

Postby North 350 Blades » Thu Feb 21, 2013 3:22 pm

Lunch time....and here's some more:

In organizing a trip, we tend to have our single day trips have one purpose, or at most a very limited range of complementary purposes. If we're going to log out, we log out, and leave the heavy tread work tools & brush saws at the cache. Similarly, when we're out to cut brush, we generally leave the chain and cross cut saws behind unless we know it's only one or two trees (in which case we'll bring a cross cut) - if we have an extra person, we'll certainly do the "annual" type maintenance described below right behind the brushing crew. Better to focus the crew on one task or a very limited set of tasks, do it safely, do it to the standard that the USFS wants - it's all around easier to organize and manage the crew.

Trail Triage is key for guiding us in prioritizing the work. From the Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook (Page 7).
1) Correct truly unsafe situations. As examples, repair impassable washouts along a cliff and remove blowdown from a steep section of a trail used by pack stock.
2) Correct problems that are causing significant trail damage, such as erosion.
3) Restore the trail to the planned design standard. The ease of finding and traveling the trail should match the design specifications for the recreational setting and target users. Actions can range from simply adding reassurance markers along a trail to a full blown reroute of poorly designed sections of eroded trail.

Note that the following is a "perfect world" scenario. I'd LOVE to be able to scout, log out and do annual maintenance on every mile every year. At this point, on our 30 mile part of the trail, we don't have the ability to do this quite yet, but we're getting there - we'll certainly do the scout and log out part this year. Once we have these miles up to snuff, this is what we'll be doing year in and year out to KEEP it up (and we'll then send our "extra" hours to other parts of the PCT here in Washington).

So, what does it take to do the various bits and pieces of trail maintenance, to truly maintain the trail:

Early Season Scouting: Scouts (not doing anything more than taking notes & pictures of issues and dragging off the easy, small trees, or cutting the 4" or less ones with their hand saws, which fall into the "brush" category) can probably cover at most 10 miles a day, if there aren't too many trees that they want / need to deal with. A pair of scouts for a day = 16 to 20 hours / 10 miles = 1.5 to 2 hours / mile. Of course, they need to write up their results and forward them to the saw crew leader so they can plan where to go and insure they have the right saws / numbers / skill sets for the job. Scouts also need to report any major damage they find - perhaps a bridge was broken by snow loads, or damaged by a falling tree and needs railing repairs, there might be root wad holes in the trail, signs that have been vandalized or any of the 1001 other things that could need attention.

Log out: Log out is actually one of the things that the USFS in our area wants us to do early in the season. Yup, log out has a high appeal so it's usually easy to raise a crew for this. I believe its important to cut out the logs earlier rather than later to preserve the safety of the trail and prevent damage to resources from users going around downed trees. It also makes it easier for us to go in later in the season with the heavy tread / dirt or brushing tools. Also, for Wilderness trips that are pack supported, the trail must be safe and clear for the pack string which means logged out. For a 3 person chain saw log out crew to cover 5 miles with a modest number of trees, that's a full day. So 24 to 30 hours / 5 miles = ~5 to 6 hours / mile. Not every stretch will need to be logged out, of course, but some will take a long time (one tree we cleared in 2010, before we were chain saw certified, was along the trail - all 100+ feet of it. It took multiple cuts to get it into small enough pieces for us to be able to roll 'em off the trail. It took 2 cross cuts several hours on this one tree). We've had times were we encountered logs that were too difficult or unsafe for our sawyers....and that's fine. We walk away from those, and call in the USFS team to take out the super tough ones (just north of Snoqualmie in 2011 they had to blast some that were too dangerous for even their best sawyers to try and cut out). Meanwhile, the USFS haven't had to spend their very limited time on the easy to average difficulty trees that we clear so it's a win-win. Of course, Wilderness / back country is slower. I was on a Washington Trails Association log out crew a few years back - 7 of us were scheduled to take 5 days to cover 30 trail miles with cross cuts in the North Cascades. 5 days x 10 hours x 7 people = 350 hours / 30 miles = 11 2/3 hours / mile, which is a pretty fair estimate for fast moving back country log out. Of course, we've also spent 40 hours clearing just a couple miles in a heavy blow down year as well.

So far, we're up to roughly 6.5 to 8 hours per mile for scouting and chain saw log out. And this is good access, non Wilderness trail that we're dealing with south of Snoqualmie Pass with only modest blow down. So, it's mostly a best case scenario. Deep in the back country, it takes longer due to the travel time to get to the section of interest and the slower work of cutting logs with cross cuts versus chain saws, especially with the larger diameters (say above 2 foot).

Now that the scouts have done the recon and the trail is free of logs - we can send in the brushing and tread maintenance and restoration crews direct to where the issues are. The scouts would have reported if / where there are issues from the winter plus reported on longer term issues like brush. Lets say the scouts report that a section we've been watching finally needs brushing - ok, we're on it.

Our experience in clearing heavy brush - we're talking the waist to chest high huckleberries that are (or were, until we cut most of them :lol: ) too common on open north facing slopes, is that a 3 person power saw team can clear about 500 feet a day to specification - 0.1 miles. Those same 3 folks with loppers would do about 150, maybe 250 feet if they were really busting it out by hand. In lighter brush that 3 person saw team can cover 2x or 3x the distance. 3 is the minimum saw crew...it's hard work for the 2 people raking and throwing the cut brush to keep up. 4 or 5 is better and makes for a more enjoyable volunteer experience* (we try to avoid working TOO hard :D ), but we'll run the numbers with 3. 24 to 30 hours to clear 0.1 to 0.3 miles. That's 80 to 300 hours per mile for brush - with a power brush saw and a small, hard working crew. Of course, that brushing job will last 5 to 10 years (here in Washington, based on what we cut back in 2010 and how fast it's growing back - not sure about the Manzinita on the south part of the trail), so the hours per mile per year could be as low as 8 (80 hours / mile divided by 10 years) or 300 hours / mile / 5 years = 60 hours / mile / year to keep the brush at bay. And again, that is outside of Wilderness. Lucky for us, in the well shaded old growth areas, the brush will grow back more slowly than in the old clear cuts that give us such problems south of Snoqualmie, perhaps it'll last 15 years (I don't know - I haven't been doing this long enough to have a feel for that part of it) - so on those miles, we will get a break and the hours per mile per year for brushing are probably less than 8.

* - we also like to have enough people to dedicate one to do pole saw work. The specification trail corridor is 8 feet wide and 10 feet high so that the equestrians may ride without getting a face full of branches or have panniers of pack stock snagged.

So, what are we up to now.....6.5 to 8 hours per mile for scouting and log out with another 8 to 60 hours per mile per year for brushing. On the low side, that's 14.5 hours / mile. High side....68 hours / mile. Again, this is outside Wilderness, using all the power tools that we can, which makes both the log out and brushing go a LOT faster - clearing more miles of trail per hour of scarce volunteer labor.

Now, on to some annual maintenance - and this is on trail that is in pretty decent shape to begin, not something in need of heavy restoration, but trail tread ALREADY pretty much up to standard and this is the annual TLC is to keep it there. Now that the brush is clear, our annual maintenance folks can come on by. What annual maintenance you ask? Great question......see those culverts that carry drainage water across / under the tread? Yup, they clog if they're not cleaned out. Clogging causes excess ground water at or under the tread, making it soft and vulnerable to erosion and damage from trail traffic. Slide a shovel on in and scoop out the gunk - its easier if you do it every year so it's never all that nasty or bad. Uh oh....that up hill drainage ditch feeding the culvert is looking a little full of silt and vegetable matter - better shovel it out and dig a nice little settling pit right in front of the culvert inlet (better to have the silt drop there than in the pipe) or better yet, scoop out the settling pit that you dug several years ago and have been scooping out each year since. Look at this log water bar - the outflow is filling up with silt causing water to back up onto the trail. It's Pulaski and McLeod time - loosen it up with the Pulaski and scrape it away with the McLeod. That other log water bar is coming loose...ok, let's take it out and re-set it properly if its still in good shape....or replace it with stone (how about we save that one for a dedicated drainage crew later in the season - there's miles to cover and time for only light touch up work, we'll report it when we get back). Hey look, there's a bit of berm developing here on the outside edge of the trail keeping water from draining off the edge....ok, a few quick whacks with the Pulaski and some scraping with the shovel or McLeod and BAM....drainage is restored. Ok....we all get the idea. A couple pairs of folks would probably be able to leap frog up the trail and if there wasn't TOO much to do could cover 5 miles in a full day. So, 4 people @ 8 to 10 hours = 32 to 40 hours for 5 miles, or 6+ to 8 hours per mile per year.

So another 6 to 8 hours per mile for annual type maintenance. On the low side we're up to about 12.5 to 16 hours / mile and on the high side 76 hours a mile to scout, log out, keep brush free and do very basic annual maintenance.

And again, this is on the easy to access trail south of Snoqualmie Pass, where we have great road access typically every 3 to 5 trail miles and can arrange drivers or shuttles to support one way 5 or 10 mile scouting and log out jaunts down the trail and use power tools. If we have to do "out and back" trips, the efficiency goes down if we're very far from an access point as we're spending significantly more of the time hiking to / from the work zone. If we switch from power tools, like we must in the Wilderness, log out goes from 5-6 hours / mile to 2x that (and more so the bigger, more complex the logs). Brushing goes from 8 to 60 hours per mile per year average to many times that if we hand cut.

Throw on to all the above major restoration project like what we're doing south of Snoqualmie, bridge replacements (due to old rotted stringers, washouts, or those that fail under snow loads), reroutes to move the trail off of sensitive lands onto a more sustainable routing, repairing vandalism damage of all kinds, etc, etc etc and yes, it can easily add up to needing 75 hours / year / mile to keep the trail up.
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Re: What DOES it take.....

Postby postholer » Thu Feb 21, 2013 5:08 pm

Man, that was detailed! Ifeel like I need to empty the dirt out of my shoes.

There's a lot going on there. It seems that traveling into and out of the work areas eats up alot of your time. I'm still having trouble absorbing up to 200 hours per trail mile, so I'll toss some more nit-pickin' your way! :D

One trip to the store for 10 items will always be more efficient than 2 trips for 5 items. Small, annual maintenance things like cleaning drainages might be addressed on a scouting trip or a log out trip, instead of a special trip.

Do whatever necessary to reduce travel time which could be used for actual work time.

Trail work, particularly for volunteers, should be fun and enjoyable. I totally get it. I imagine at the beginning of any work day or new project site there's plenty of discussion on how to address it while volunteers 'linger'. Try minimizing that sort of down time. Volunteers could be cleaning drainages while 1 or 2 supervisors arrive at the site before workers to evaluate.

Ok, I think that's enough dictation from the comfort and ignorance of my arm chair! :twisted:

Thanks again Barry!
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Re: What DOES it take.....

Postby markv » Tue Feb 26, 2013 9:48 pm

Thank you. I'll be thinking of you gratefully if i'm lucky enough to make it to Snoqualmie. I remember some things about that section, but mostly that most thru-hikers did the cut-off down the ski slopes to the Pass. If there's been major work and you think it's worthwhile, i'll make a point of sticking to real trail all the way.
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Re: What DOES it take.....

Postby JimAndDona » Sat Mar 23, 2013 8:20 pm

Actually markv, the work south of Snoqualmie is south of the ski area. At least 99.5555% is!

Hikers cut straight down the ski hill because they can see the beer sign at the store :D
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