There are national forests in nearly every state, and although each of them is unique, most do have networks of footpaths that need annual attention.
A forestry service job offers numerous benefits beyond finances, including building character and helping with the environment.
Imagine the smell of crisp autumn air and the feel of the
wind cooling your sweaty brow as you pause in your labor to
watch a hawk soaring off toward a jagged mountain range.
Now imagine getting paid to work in that sort of
environment! Does it sound too good to be true? Well, such
tough but health-building jobs are available . . . to folks
who contract to work for the U.S. Forestry Service.
Although it's true that most national forests have their
own crews—and generally hire professional contractors
to take care of major projects—the Forestry Service
does employ private citizens for forestry service jobs that involve the
maintenance and general upkeep of trails and such. As a
matter of fact, a friend and I spent a rigorous (but
wonderful) month last fall, high in the scenic mountains of
southern Oregon, laboring away on one of those "secondary"
jobs. We earned a few extra calluses, developed some new
muscles, and enjoyed ourselves in the woods while making
over $3,000 . . . and there's no reason why you can't do
the same (or better).
FORESTRY SERVICE JOBS . . . WHAT AND WHERE?
There are national forests in nearly every state, and
although each of them is unique, most do have networks of
footpaths that need annual attention. Your task might
consist of rerouting directional signs . . . clearing
streams of debris . . . or even collecting pine cones for
tree propagation. In short, any number of housekeeping
chores are all but crying out to be taken care of in most
So how do you find out just what these jobs are? Well, you
might want to do as my friend and I did: We simply paid a
visit to our local Forestry Service office and filled out
an application to have our names put on the "Bidder's
Mailing List". By doing so, we were assured of being
notified by the Forestry Service whenever a project of
interest to us was put up for bids.
The form listed 64 categories of jobs that are sometimes
available in the national forests . . . tasks that vary
from fence construction to aerial tree spraying. An
applicant is allowed to sign up for as many different kinds
of work as he or she chooses, but since we were interested
only in trail maintenance, that was the sole area we
indicated on our applications. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Most
Forestry Service offices don't require you to make a
personal visit to get on the Bidder's Mailing List . . . a
phone call will usually suffice.]
EXPERIENCE IS THE BEST TEACHER
Once my friend and I had put our names in the hat, we
decided that we'd best buckle down and learn something
about the field we'd just chosen to work in. And the
logical way to get such an education, we decided, was to go
to the experts . . . people who were already experienced at
serving on forestry maintenance crews.
It was our hope that such teams would occasionally need to
take on extra part-time labor, and we thought that by
working along with these "trail hands", we could gain some
invaluable experience ourselves . . . and be better
prepared when we got the chance to bid on a contract of our
own. However, we soon found that most crews (which are made
up, on the average, of only three people) don't want to
shell out the cash to hire anyone else. But if
you're willing to work for a little while for free (we came
to think of the donated labor as tuition), there's plenty
to be learned from the veterans.
You could also acquire practical expertise in woods work by
contacting local volunteer organizations . . . in the East,
for example, there's the Appalachian Trail Conference
(Dept. TMEN, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia). These groups offer both information and hands-on
instruction in forestry techniques—as well as fun and
fellowship—in the form of weekend maintenance
But just how you get your "schooling" isn't as
important as the fact that you do get it. Believe me, you'd
better know what you're doing when you take on a job 20
miles from nowhere ... because there won't be anyone else
around to advise you if something goes wrong.
GETTING READY TO BID ON A FORESTRY SERVICE JOB
After you're on the bidding list and you've gained some
experience, you can settle back and wait until a job comes
up that you'd like to tackle. It was a couple of months
before we heard from the Forestry Service . . . but when we
did, we got word that a couple of trail
maintenance jobs were available. As you can imagine, we
didn't lose much time in heading down to headquarters for
Then, after reading all the fine print that defined exactly
what each assignment required, we located the trails to be
worked on and walked several miles of each to see,
firsthand, what kind of maintenance was involved. By doing
so, we learned what we needed to know to figure out what
our bid (a statement of how much time and money we'd need
to do the job) would be.
GO FOR IT!
Putting up a bid isn't as imposing a task as it might sound
at first. Again, all that's needed is a little previous
experience . . . which we'd attained by working with the
crews, remember? Simply put, as long as you have some
knowledge of what you can do and how long it should take
you to do it, you can come up with a reasonable bid. But if
you don't trust your own judgment at first, abstracts of
previous years' contracts are kept on file at Forestry
Service offices . . . and you'll be welcome to inspect
To determine your bid, simply estimate how many hours the
job will require . . . figure your expenses (include gas,
tools, and plenty of food) . . . then add enough
profit to make the job worth your while (don't worry,
you'll earn it). Finally, submit your bid and hope
for the best. But remember, if you don't get the first job
you set your sights on, there'll be plenty of other
FORESTRY MAINTENANCE: THE WORK BEGINS
We bid on both jobs and lost one (we were a bit too high, I
guess) but won the other . . . which earned us a contract
to upgrade 65 miles of trail. At that point we had to meet
with our Contracting Officer (the official to whom we were
ultimately responsible). He told us exactly what was
expected of us and introduced us to the Contracting
Officer's Representative (COR) who would actually visit the
site to inspect each leg of our work as we finished it.
The most important tool required for our work was a
McCleod: a heavy wilderness firefighting rake, equipped
with a cutting blade, that's excellent for clearing out
brush. (You can buy the tool or make your own . . . see the
accompanying diagram.) We also carried picks and
shovels—usually strapped to our backs on packboards
to free our hands for the McCleod—for prying up large
rocks and loosening tightly packed soil.
We were fortunate that "our" trails were located in a tract
of forest near our house, since that proximity allowed
us—during much of the job—to drive to the
trailhead at dawn and be home, hungry and tired, by dusk.
When tackling more remote sections, though—including
a 22-mile leg of the Pacific Coast Trail—we packed a
week's worth of provisions on mules and camped out as we
A JOB WELL DONE
Forestry Service labor isn't easy . . . in fact, you'll
probably be amazed by just how tired you feel after that
first day. Our trail contract required that we clear the
track of any stone larger than two inches—and of
anything else that had fallen onto the pathway from the
slopes above—and also clean out all of the drainage
ditches. So we did what the agreement demanded, leaving
behind only insignificant (we thought) obstructions such as
deeply rooted clumps of weeds.
When our work was inspected for the first time, however,
our COR informed us (in no uncertain terms!) that he wanted
everything removed . . . so we had to return to
the scene and do the job right. I suggest that you make
every effort to be thorough the first time.
Even so, there'll likely be moments when you'll want to
throw up your hands and quit (because your body's heavy
with fatigue and your tongue's parched from constant dust),
but hang in there. When the blues get you, just take a
break to drink some sweet spring water and look back at the
clean, inviting trail you've just cleared. Lean against a
tree and enjoy the view . . . after all, you're the one
who's made it possible for others to reach this exact spot.
You might also want to mull over just what you're getting
from your job . . . besides the money in your pocket and
aching—but stronger—muscles. You just might (as
my friend and I did) discover that there's a great deal of
satisfaction to be gained from the realization that your
work is helping to preserve our national forests . . . for
our own and other generations.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A good source of information about trail
construction and upkeep is Robert Proudman's AMC Guide to
Trail Building and Maintenance. You can order a copy for
$6.95 plus $1.00 shipping and handling—from the
Appalachian Mountain Club, Boston, Massachusetts.