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Volunteer trail crew helps repair CDT at Lewis and Clark Pass

During last summer's fire season, flames from the Alice Creek fire swept across Lewis and Clark Pass, scorching the area's whitebark pine, damaging the trails in the area and destroying a Forest Service sign marking Meriwether Lewis' passage across the divide on July 7, 1806.

Last week, a small group of volunteers recruited by the Montana Wilderness Association and the Continental Divide Trail Coalition replaced that sign and spent five days rehabilitating and re-blazing a section of the trail from the pass to the south side of Green Mountain.

"They came through, did some re-tread on areas where the fire had pretty much nuked the existing tread, they re-established that for clarity and for sustainability," said Lincoln Ranger District Resource Manager Josh Lattin, who developed the project with the MWA after the Lewis and Clark Foundation proposed to pay for a replacement interpretive sign.

"We figured well, we could probably get more done than (replacing the sign) and made this a larger project. There's certainly a need up there for work on the trail," he said.

Sonny Mazzullo, the young, genial crew leader for MWA, said the project covered about 3500 feet of trail and presented a few challenges for the crew, including the mile and half hike to and from their basecamp near the Alice Creek trailhead, figuring out on the fly how to get the posts for the new sign set in the rocky ground, and the cold winds that blasted the area and occasionally took a hard hat along with it.

Nevertheless, he was amazed by the volunteer crew, who took their vacation time to come out, lend a hand and put some sweat equity into the trail.

"I'm always astounded. We have trip after trip, year after year, filled with really passionate, dedicated volunteers who come together, over the course of a week," he said.

The MWA has been a longtime project partner with the Lincoln Ranger District but the Colorado-based CDTC, an organization dedicated to completing, promoting and protecting the 3100-mile CDT, was a newcomer to the area.

"We're a partner organization (with MWA)," said Chad Angell, a field program manager for the CDTC who was helping to lead the crew. "We always look at how we can partner in the future. Instead of re-inventing the wheel, if they already have some projects on the CDT lined up, we advertise it and we help recruit volunteers."

Angell said last week's effort, which also included replacing the trail markers that had been lost in the fire, fit with the group's "Blaze the CDT" campaign this year, aimed at installing aluminum or wooden trail markers along the entire CDT.

"This being an historic pass, it's kind of cool to have the CDT and the Lewis and Clark trail together," he said.

"That's a new partnership for the Helena-Lewis and Clark (National Forest) and it could be something good moving forward," said Lattin, who first heard about the organization and their Gateway Community program a few years ago.

At Lattin's suggestion, the Lincoln Valley Chamber of Commerce worked with the CDT Coalition last year to see Lincoln designated as Montana's first CDT Gateway Community, which gives projects on the scenic trail in the area an increased relevance for both the town and the Coalition.

Although Lewis and Clark Pass is significant to the history of the nation and to Lincoln – until about 1940 it was the main road over the divide for people heading from the Upper Blackfoot toward Great Falls or Augusta - some of the volunteers had a personal connection to the area as well.

For Carl Anderson of Missoula, who spent a lot of time in the area when his family owned a cabin near the intersection of Landers Fork and Copper Creek roads, the pass was the site of his first backpacking trip with his dad, when he was 15 in 1962.

"It was old army plywood pack frames, we didn't have canteens so we carried our water in mason jars. So, this is kind of cool," he said.

Linda Vance, a senior ecologist with the Montana Institute on Ecosystems, knows the area as well, considering it "one of the most beautiful spots in Montana where you can stand on the ridge and look at the prairies in one direction and mountains in the other."

She spent part of 2014 surveying the whitebark pine that grows there.

"We were interested in this pass because it's one of the lowest occurrences of whitebark pine in the state," she said.

Despite the impact the Alice Creek Fire Fire had on the trees she'd surveyed, she's hopeful they'll make a comeback. "Whitebark is released by fire, so it may seed itself in at this point.

"If the climate warms, this might be a little too low for it, but we've been up there the last few days and it's been cold and windy and harsh," she said.

Unlike the others, Sean Jansen had never been on the CDT before, but he had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and signed on to give back to other through hikers.

"I didn't know how much effort it takes to build a trail like this," he said. "Dare I say, now I know, because I'm tired every single day. It's been awesome, a really huge learning curve."

For both Mazzulo and Lattin, the volunteer efforts of organizations like the MWA and the CDTC are key to the future of trails like the CDT.

"The volunteers have an important support role for our land management agencies, who are constantly having to do more with less," Mazzulo said. "It's really huge, as far as at least trying to mend a little bit of that void."

"A larger part of it for me is just seeing more and more people involved in the resource," Lattin said. "Once you're on a trail and you work it and put in your blood, sweat and tears, you tend to fight for it a little harder and hike it a little more and talk it up a little more and it means more to you. So the more folks you can engage out on the ground, in the woods, getting work done, the larger the support group we have for our National Forest trail system."


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