BRECKENRIDGE — Ann Baker Easley deftly navigates an icy trail that winds past a wooden troll, an ice rink and a railroad park.
“Pretty sure we built this. We worked on a lot of trails around here,” says the chief executive officer of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, which in the past five years has funneled more than 7,500 volunteer hours into six trail projects around Breckenridge, not including the one she’s sliding around on today.
Chances are very good that if you’ve hiked a trail in Colorado — any trail — you have Baker Easley to thank.
In her 40 years of service in Colorado, Baker Easley has enlisted tens of thousands of volunteers to build trails and repair forests. The CEO of Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado — or VOC — for 13 years, she also spent 11 years directing the Colorado Youth Corps Association on top of nearly two decades founding a host of civilian corps across the state and country.
She is the matriarch of Colorado volunteer stewardship, building a machine that unites well-trained trail and restoration experts and federal land managers to direct hordes of eager volunteers toward increasingly large-scale projects across the state. After a year in which more Americans than ever before found respite and refuge in the outdoors, VOC has long waiting lists of volunteers ready to help budget-strapped land managers better accommodate the crowds, protect wildlands, and restore habitats and watersheds scorched by fire.
And finally, those land managers have an influx of funding for big projects, thanks to the Great American Outdoors Act, President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan and legislation that could take a swarm of workers — not unlike the Civilian Conservation Corps that employed millions of young men on massive environmental projects during the Great Depression — and direct them toward landscape-shifting projects on public lands.
“The time is ripe to really position volunteer stewardship as a key player in the recipe of public lands management,” said Baker Easley, who is retiring from her VOC post at the end of the April.
The recipe for public lands management has always relied on volunteers. For decades, a small group of trail builders has helped the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management weave pathways across public lands. Baker Easley has taken the trail-club mentality and built a system that trains leaders who can direct large groups of 100 or more volunteers.
When Baker Easley joined VOC, the group worked on about 18 projects a year, with a small-but-loyal team that volunteered at least one weekend a year to build pathways in the woods. Now the group has partnership offices in Weld County and the San Luis Valley, and it works with the Forest Service, BLM, local conservation groups and communities on nearly 100 projects a year. Since 1984, the group has deployed more than 125,000 volunteers on more than 1,000 projects, delivering $25 million in free labor across Colorado.
Since the 1980s, a growing network of volunteer stewardship groups has spread across the state, most captained by leaders who trained under the VOC banner.
“Ann has created this fount of creativity when it comes to motivating people to care about the state they live in,” said Lloyd Athearn, the director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which has designed and built 33 routes to the top of 30 Colorado peaks since its founding in 1994.
Athearn’s team is still tallying results from infrared trailside counters, but he expects 2020 traffic numbers on Colorado 14ers to be 20% to 30% above the previous high of 353,000 hiker days set in 2018.
“It’s staggering how important our public lands were for people during the pandemic,” Athearn said.
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, one of many volunteer stewardship groups around the state that can trace their roots back to VOC, estimates Colorado’s highest peaks need more than $18 million in trail maintenance, upgrades and replacement. Almost all of that labor will require volunteers directed by trained crew bosses whose skills were honed in VOC programs.
“As I’ve heard Ann say more than 1,000 times or so, volunteers are not free,” Athearn said. “You have people who are giving their time and effort, but it costs a lot to plan, ensure safety and make it all come together logistically.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
A poorly orchestrated trail-building trip can turn away a volunteer forever. So can a budget-strapped land manager who rebuffs the offers of eager helpers. But that rejection of help happens all the time.
The VOC isn’t just about building hiking trails. Hundreds of volunteers have seeded thousands of acres of fire-scorched land after the Fourmile Canyon, High Park and Waldo Canyon fires. The organization has trained dozens of volunteers on forest restoration techniques. Its crews have removed deadfall and thinned trees to bolster a forest’s resilience.
Jim Bedwell said one of the main complaints he heard from volunteers when he was with the U.S. Forest Service involved local rangers turning away offers of help.
“We need volunteers to be organized. They can’t just show up with shovels and an idea,” said Bedwell, spinning off a list of often-complicated steps and necessities required before volunteers start moving dirt on federal land, including lengthy environmental review, personal safety equipment and a trained leader who knows Forest Service rules.
Bedwell worked for the Forest Service for 38 years, serving as the agency’s national director of recreation and heritage and retiring in 2017 as the Rocky Mountain Region’s director of recreation, land, minerals and volunteers.
He now serves on the VOC board, helping guide the group’s expanding role in the realm of volunteer stewardship.
The challenge of managing volunteers has grown as Forest Service budgets have been eviscerated by firefighting and staffing has been slashed by as much as a third in recent years.
That’s throttled the agency’s ability not just to restore fire-ravaged ecosystems, but to thin forests and reduce fuels that feed devastating wildfires. It’s also slowed the agency’s ability to keep up with aging facilities while managing growing waves of recreational users and to adjust to ever-evolving types of recreation.
“There has been a tremendous loss of agency capacity to plan ahead and organize and manage not only volunteers, but new funding in the world of recreation,” Bedwell said. “It’s not just about fixing up what you had before. There is a need to adapt and have new and different facilities and amenities, and that takes professional skills. It takes collaboration and working with tribes and communities, where maybe they build trailheads and we build trails. All this takes time and expertise, i.e. people. And the people have been going down, down.”
Dwindling staff at the Forest Service and BLM may change with increased federal dollars directed into public lands thanks to stimulus spending, new infrastructure plans and last year’s Great American Outdoors Act. A proposal by Colorado’s U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse — a Democrat who chairs the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands — includes creating a civilian climate corps that would create hundreds of thousands of jobs restoring forests and protecting public lands.
“Those are all great, but unless some of those funds can be used to build organizational capacity, it’s going to be really hard to be efficient with that money,” Bedwell said.
That’s when Baker Easley’s legacy will shine brightest, Bedwell said.
The training programs and VOC’s ability to adapt and expand beyond trails to ecosystem-wide fire recovery, forest restoration and diversifying the volunteer base will serve the Forest Service and BLM well as the agencies adjust to new funding and new demands from public lands users, he said.
“Ann has always had her head up, looking at what’s coming and what the needs are,” Bedwell said. “She always kept her eyes on the horizon and diversified what VOC does in terms of changing needs of federal agencies.”
Back on the icy trail near Breckenridge’s Main Street, Baker Easley said it’s time for those agencies to change with the evolving role of volunteer stewardship.
“The concept of shared stewardship really needs to be looking at partnerships and really bringing in better capacity with the public and I do feel we are at the prime moment to do that,” she said. “The agencies don’t really have enough staff. We have a training institute and we train a lot of their seasonal staff. So with this shift we are seeing with the Great American Outdoors Act and other funding, we have to have the agencies shifting too, where they say we are entering a new era and we need help in pushing some of this money out.”
Nathan Fey, the director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, has helped guide a statewide education effort helping newcomers to public lands recreate responsibly. The second-phase of that could be a focus on job creation in rural communities surrounded by heavily-trafficked Forest Service and BLM lands. Fey sees opportunity in expanding the training programs developed by Baker Easley for permanent jobs and even careers.
“These kinds of programs could be a great solution in offering a way for training formerly incarcerated individuals,” Fey said, noting that inmates have been fighting wildfires for decades in the West. “Maybe there’s a way to add additional training for incarcerated individuals so the skills they’ve acquired can give them a career path as well as an opportunity to work outside. I can’t think of a targeted population that could benefit more from time spent outdoors.”
Baker Easley’s expansion of projects has opened doors for new volunteers. Urban projects — like installing shade canopies in pocket parks in Commerce City — enlisted help on summer weekday evenings. VOC has daytime volunteer projects as well. Recent projects involved converting urban flower beds into vegetable gardens that supply local food banks. A project in a community park in the San Luis Valley rewarded volunteers with $100 gift cards for the local grocery.
“We feel like increasingly our population is so different, and in exciting ways we need to reach them. We can’t just do projects where everybody has to camp or where we all need special gear,” she said. “We are trying to build people’s interest in the outdoors.”
Joe Lavorini, a graduate student at Western Colorado University, received the VOC’s Grossman Scholarship last year after a decade of working with the group on fire restoration training programs and the building the Dixon Trail on Cheyenne Mountain.
Today he is the Gunnison County Stewardship Coordinator for the National Forest Foundation, helping the county better protect natural resources in heavily trafficked areas around Crested Butte.
Lavorini calls VOC “the mothership of community stewardship in Colorado.”
“And Ann’s leadership is a big reason for that. The organization’s influence is felt at just about every stewardship organization in the state,” Lavorini said. “Our public lands, and our communities, are better off because of Ann’s leadership.”