The Tongass National Forest, a coastal rain forest, contains boggy ground called muskeg, and many trails there are built of raised boards. Because trails need replacing every 10-15 years, the trail system is limited.
Trees on the forest include massive western redcedars, as well as towering Sitka Spruce and western hemlock which “have a lot of lean and a lot of rot, making them particularly susceptible to windfall” according to Tongass Wilderness Ranger Steve Kimball.
In the past, due to lack of staff experienced with traditional tools, Kimball has had to resort to chainsaw exemptions to deal with many of the hazard trees on the Tongass. In 2012, Kimball connected with Ian Barlow, a USFS Wilderness Ranger from Idaho with decades of experience in traditional tools and skills.
Barlow has a personal quest to pass on such skills to younger generations before they disappear entirely.
He agreed to lead 16 staff and volunteers in an intensive training, using traditional tools and rigging to down four hazard trees and remove a propane tank.
“These skills are a dying art form,” Kimball pointed out. “And it’s important that younger generations of wilderness volunteers understand how to use them, so that we can continue to honor the spirit of the Wilderness Act in maintaining Wilderness.”
The volunteers spent three days felling the big Sitka Spruce. Much of this time was spent contemplating how to bring down the tree without harming the cabin. They considered options, evaluated, planned and trained. Choreographing the escape was mandatory.
“Ian wasn’t about to let volunteers fell the tree without thinking about the entire process, including their escape routes should something go wrong,” explained Steve Kimball, Wilderness Ranger on the Tongass. “What if the tree moves in a direction you weren’t anticipating? They tried to consider every possible outcome, then they plotted escape routes, choreographed it and practiced several times.” Kimball recalled.
Ultimately, like loggers of the 19th and early 20th century, the volunteers used axes to notch the tree and insert springboards on which to stand to debark part of the tree in preparation for the crosscut saw. Combining muscle with sweat, grunting and sawdust, the tree was felled and the cabin untouched.
Besides the intense satisfaction of a job well done, about two thirds of the participants will receive their crosscut saw certification. And USFS staff, as well as local volunteers, have reached a more complex understanding of traditional skills and tools, a step toward the passing of one generation’s knowledge to another.
Kimball notes that the skills learned this summer will need to be practiced to really build proficiency. “It’s important that the people who learned these skills continue to develop them over decades, as Ian Barlow has done, and then pass them on.”