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).
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 government-protected woods.
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.]
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 outings.
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.
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 specific information.
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.
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 them.
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 opportunities.
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 worked.
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.
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