Sierra Club: The Planet--1996
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The Planet
Hold the Desert, Pass Me a Shovel!

By John DeCock
Associate Conservation Director

What are the essential elements of the perfect vacation? Waiting in line at a big theme park? Driving endless hours behind a huge RV? Stuffing yourself on a cruise ship? For more than 1,200 Sierra Club members each year, getting away from it all means traveling by trail or water into a breathtaking wilderness area to plant native flora, swing a pick, build a bridge, restore Native American archaeological sites or take part in any of the dozens of other Service Trips program activities.

All over the United States, the Sierra Club works with the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal and state land agencies to contribute desperately-needed volunteer labor to maintenance projects. Since the Service Trips program was initiated, volunteers have given millions of dollars' worth of labor to protect and restore our natural heritage.

The program began in 1958 as an annual cleanup trip to the High Sierra. The first year, thousands of discarded cans were removed from the vicinity of Shadow Lake. As park and forest rangers became aware of the willing pool of volunteer workers, they began suggesting new projects and more of them. Today the program runs nearly 100 trips annually.

On a typical service trip, participants can expect to work for slightly more than half of the time. The remaining days are spent hiking, "bagging peaks," swimming or relaxing in camp. There are many variations on this basic theme - some groups prefer to work more and play less in order to make greater progress on their project. The work is often supervised by a government trail coordinator who also provides tools. Tasks are usually varied enough so that there is something to challenge, but not defeat, the strength of each participant.

Jean Ridone has been bringing Sierra Club groups to work on a small section of trail in the western Cascades for several years. In the old-growth along the headwaters of the Willamette River, work is slow and it's hard to see progress in a single year. As the project unfolds over time, Ridone and fellow volunteers will be able to watch hikers find their way into this beautiful place on the trail they carefully laid.

In the mid-'80s, current Angeles Chapter Chair Bonnie Sharpe began a series of extremely popular trips to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico to assist archaeologists and National Park Service employees in preserving the Anasazi ruins. An enormous amount of restoration has been accomplished and the project is still going strong. Larry Belli, Superintendent of Chaco Culture National Historic Park, said that without the work of the Sierra Club "we might have had to bury some of these structures to maintain them for the long term." The Service Trips subcommittee of the National Outing Committee holds a training seminar each June for veteran leaders and new prospects to share stories from the previous season, make plans for the coming year and conduct extensive training on everything from cooking hygiene and tool safety to coping with interpersonal problems and medical emergencies.

Among those in attendance at this year's seminar in Briones Regional Park near Orinda, Calif., was Alison Campbell, a nurse and mother of two from Olympia, Wash. She is preparing to lead her first service trip, a maintenance project on the Sierra Club's trail over Goodale Pass. "I started going on Sierra Club Outings with my dad when I was 4 years old," she said. When she began taking trips on her own, she chose a service trip geared for beginners, but soon realized her previous experience made her something more than a novice. She approached the trip staff with an offer to help and the leader suggested she become a trainee. "It had never entered my mind" recalled Campbell, "but I'm glad I decided to do it."

Think about it: When you return from your vacation this summer, what would you rather tell your friends and coworkers about - spending 10 days in a wilderness area to repair trails, prevent erosion and protect a watershed where salmon spawn or waiting two hours in line at Disneyland's Space Mountain?

There are still plenty of opportunities to participate in a 1996 service trip. Whether it's restoring native plants in Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadow, repairing trails in the shadow of Colorado's Maroon Bells peaks or backpacking into Baxter Park in Maine to build a new trail as the autumn colors arrive, it's likely you'll find a trip that's just right for you.

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