Giving Back to the Trails We Love

Words by Patrick Morrison, Trails Director for the local nonprofit Cottonwood Canyons Foundation. This summer, Coalatree partnered with CCF to rehabilitate trails in the Wasatch Mountains, a range of urban forests local to us in Salt Lake City. Learn more about the work CCF does on their website.

My relationship with Coalatree began with a simple email:  “Would your company be interested in joining our trail crew for some volunteer service in the canyons this summer?” I had first learned of Coalatree from their campaign to give blankets to the homeless. I knew they were local and I knew they promoted an “eco-minded” culture, but just how much they were willing to do I had yet to discover. 

As the Trails Director for the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, a local stewardship non-profit in Salt Lake City, emails to local companies are a big part of my off-season. However, enthusiastic replies in the positive are much more rare. Within days, not only had Coalatree begun scheduling a day every month to take their entire staff out to work on the trails with my crew, but they had invited me to join them in their office so they could personally donate a number of great products for a fundraiser we were in the midst of planning. Quite the first impression!

And so began many days over the summer working alongside the Coalatree crew, Brandon, Charlie, John Michael, and Danielle, every member of their staff joining us in our local forest. Over their service days throughout the season, we examined many of the issues facing our local canyons. It started with our work in the Mount Olympus Wilderness, a wilderness boundary designated by the Forest Service as a land “untrammeled” by man. The importance of Wilderness is that it allows us to feel like visitors in the canyons, unencumbered by the noises of machines, and the scars of human use, and to see the value in untamed spaces.  In the lushness of the spring melt, between sprouting morel mushrooms and glacier lilies, we worked to erase these man-made scars, clearing fire ring after fire ring, while collecting the piles of trash that too often accompany these gathering points.

Forests all around the country experience these challenges. However, our forest is categorized as an urban forest, offering multiple challenges unique to our community. Not only is it a protected watershed that provides over 60% of the drinking water to the Salt Lake Valley, but it also sees more annual visitation than Yellowstone National Park. With so much public use, sustainable and safe trails are crucial and must be maintained regularly. The Coalatree crew quickly got their training in all the features that keep the trails in shape, and by the end of their season, had learned enough that they could build their own features, freely using trail terms like check step, outslope, and switchbacks. After a day spent swinging tools with volunteers, it always makes me smile to hear the comment, “I’ll never walk a trail the same way again.” Even with these outdoor veterans from Coalatree, I can only hope this still rang true after this season.

On our final day together, we addressed one of the newest and most visible challenges facing our forest, graffiti. The presence of graffiti compromises our water quality with its chemicals, disrupts the immersion of wilderness, and acts as a behavior model of abuse and dereliction for visitors who see it, influencing how they interact with the forest. It really is a special thrill to remove graffiti, and not just because you get to use a power washer. It’s an immediate restoration, so palpable. The joy of removing graffiti is a joy more intense than any I see with volunteers out in the forest. I was thrilled to be able to share this feeling with Coalatree, and see the look on their faces when the beautiful granite at Lisa Falls was restored to its natural color by their own hands.

100 years ago, our local forest had all been cut down and our water undrinkable.  From the day they planted the first tree to begin its restoration, the tradition of stewardship in the Salt Lake Valley was created, a tradition we strive to carry forward. In a day where limited federal funds go to protecting our public lands, it’s the members of our communities who must become the stewards. As we attract more people and businesses to Salt Lake, we hope that like Coalatree, they understand we need to protect what it is that makes this all possible, our canyons. And you can look good doing it, as Coalatree proved this season, rolling up the sleeves, sporting their new pants, and doing amazing work alongside my crew.

Images by Danielle Alling

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