Muddy Hands, Happy Hearts 4

Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers Get it Done by Getting Dirty

How do you foster a deep and sustaining sense of stewardship for the land? By getting your hands good and dirty in it. That’s the founding belief of the Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers (RFOV), the Basalt-based nonprofit that offers opportunities to pour your sweat equity into a full slate of trail work and ecological restoration projects from Aspen to Rifle.

Since 1995, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers has channelled the labor of nearly 22,000 volunteers to build and maintain over 500 miles of local trails, restore 20 acres of wetlands, and remove invasive weeds from nearly 50 acres of public lands. In addition to a full summer schedule of public work days, the organization also offers local clubs, schools, organizations, and businesses the opportunity to volunteer for focused projects in its Group Work Day program. RFOV is also highly vested in creating opportunities for Roaring Fork Valley youth to develop strong relationships with our stunning local landscapes; their Young Stewards Initiative fosters this through programs ranging from half-day outdoor service learning opportunities for local middle school students to a seven-month long classroom-based Sustainable Outdoor Leadership program that educates students on the ethics behind wilderness land management, Google Maps trail building, and a host of related topics.

RFOV’s extensive reliance on volunteers and its unique hands-on approach is intentional. Executive Director J. David Hamilton experienced the intense success of a similar participatory model during a previous professional tenure with Denver-based Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), a statewide organization that has been involving citizens in public land stewardship since 1984. VOC’s success confirmed that when Coloradans get their hands in the dirt to improve and restore the local lands they recreate and live in, they get invested in ensuring those lands remain healthy in a powerful and lasting way. Hamilton helped bring the VOC model of citizen involvement to the Roaring Fork Valley as a way to harness the deep passion locals have for their landscapes and mountain recreation and use it to help preserve, maintain, and enhance wetlands and trails.

What do these volunteers get in exchange for donating their precious summer evenings and the occasional weekend to one of RFOV’s summer projects? A lot.

The organization estimates they’ve had volunteers spanning an age range from three to 93 years old, and all ages share a renewed sense of pride, ownership, connection, and fun with each volunteer stint. Students in Carbondale’s Waldorf School adopted the Perham Creek Trail in 2008 and subsequently began taking their parents and friends hiking on the trail to show them what they’d accomplished. And RFOV’s large contingent of longtime volunteers can’t seem to stop coming back for more projects, year after year.

“Participating in projects with RFOV has given me a sense of connectedness to the land,” says Elaine Wysocki, a New Castle resident who has volunteered for several RFOV projects every summer over the past fifteen years. “Trails take us to some incredibly beautiful places that you might never get to experience otherwise. It’s very rewarding to go back year after year and see the rock walls I helped build, the stairs I helped create on the Hanging Lake trail, and the native vegetation that was restored along the river banks from years of tamarisk removal projects. The improvements are long-lasting and are enjoyed by so many residents and visitors, both now and for generations to come. It feels great to give back to our public lands, which have been a source of recreation and enjoyment for me for the past twenty years.”

Basalt resident Helen Carlsen shares Wysocki’s passion for outdoor volunteering.

“I have been a hiker since I was a teenager, but I had never thought about trail work until I saw a flier from RFOV asking: ‘Do you use this trail? If so, help us maintain it,’” says Carlsen, who has volunteered for more than 50 RFOV projects in the past two decades. “Now I understand how much work previous generations of trail users and volunteers have put in on thousands of miles of trails all over the country, and I look at and appreciate trail work wherever I am hiking.”

Such sentiments are precisely what RFOV’s founders hoped to instill in locals when they started the organization over 20 years ago.

“When I think about the thousands of volunteers we’ve involved and the amount of work we’ve accomplished on our public lands, it doesn’t seem possible,” says Executive Director Hamilton. “We never imagined how our success would continue to build over these 22 years with new ways to reach volunteers with our Group Work Day and Young Stewards Initiative programs.”

Volunteers Wysocki and Carlsen both encourage anyone who is interested to come out and volunteer, noting that there’s a place for people of all physical abilities to get involved. Scheduled public work projects in the summer of 2017 range from short after-work Tuesday evening trail projects at Carbondale’s Crown Trail system and Snowmass’ Sky Mountain Park to a two-day backpacking weekend to restore several miles of the Capitol Lake trail.

“It’s very satisfying to work on every project because at the end of the day we can see how much difference our work has made,” says Carlsen. “All of us own our public lands and we should help take care of them, especially now that the Forest Service and BLM no longer have money to pay for their own trail and restoration crews. I like to say: If every trail and river user volunteered one day a year, think how much we could get done.”

“Volunteering on projects is fun,” agrees Wysocki. “There are various types of work on each project, from lighter duty pruning and brush hauling, to digging, to rock wall work—there’s something for everyone. You don’t have to be the world’s strongest person to do trail work that is worthwhile and rewarding—there are many different ways to participate. And at the end of a project day, you get to enjoy a good meal and a few beers and socialize with everyone who worked on the project. It’s an awesome way to spend the day.”

Ready to get your own hands dirty? Learn more about signing up for volunteering, a group work day, or a classroom program at RFOV.org.