The art of crosscut: Keeping trails safe and accessible one log at a time

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests wilderness trail crew/Song: Gospel Pool by The Joy Drops

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Away from the bustle of the city and far out of reach from cell service, a team of young men is hard at work. As two see-saw back and forth on either end of an old crosscut, another hacks away branches from a fallen tree with a pulaski.

If it weren’t for their green helmets and neon-yellow brimmed visors, they might look like they were plucked from some decade in the 1800s.

That’s because the team — a four-person wilderness trail crew in Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests — does everything by hand. From cutting trees to moving 100-foot logs, every aspect of the job is done with old, primitive hand tools.

It’s an intense job that involves lugging pounds of equipment through Arizona’s backcountry and living for days out of a backpack. While it might sound like a welcome vacation to some, to the crew, it’s all in a day’s work.

Owen Kyle, Jay Majersky and Troy Swank II — led by the Apache-Sitgreaves Wilderness Ranger Melissa Noel Gill — are tasked with maintaining trails across the forest’s wilderness area. The team — a paid crew with the U.S. Forest Service — clears trails of debris and makes sure each area they’re working on is suitable for hikers walking through.

Their work is similar to other crews across the country, but what makes them different is this: No chainsaws, or any motorized equipment for that matter, are allowed.

Since the passage of The Wilderness Act of 1964, operating mechanized equipment in wilderness areas is prohibited. First drafted in 1956 by environmental activist Howard Zahniser then signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson eight years later, The Wilderness Act protects and preserves 750 areas all over the country and 111 million acres in the continental U.S., according to The Wilderness Society.

The team works with hand tools like crosscuts, hand saws, pulaskis and hatchets, using nothing more than their own body strength to get the job done.

“The wilderness offers a place for me to stop — there’s nothing going on, there’s no agenda, there’s no one judging you, there’s no pressing issues except for moving along the trail,” Gill said.

Gill’s experience in working with the Forest Service dates back to 2005. She learned the ins and outs of working with hand saws and other tools under a previous wilderness ranger over the last 15 years.

Though she’s turned the practice into a career, forestry wasn’t always something Gill said she saw herself doing. It all started somewhat haphazardly when her friend referred her for the job and, though it was difficult at first, she learned to love the hard work.

She’s been returning to the forest on and off ever since, cultivating her love of the outdoors in others by teaching them how to work with crosscuts that date back to the 1800s.

However, working primitively isn’t a growing practice, in fact, it’s a dying art.

There’s a dwindling amount of designated trail crews across the country dedicated to working with hand tools, mostly because of the introduction of motorized tools to trail work and a lack of funding to wilderness crews specifically. And, what makes Gill’s team so much more unique is its dedication to working with livestock.

Gill and her crew work with a group of horses and mules to help them navigate the backcountry without using cars or other vehicles.

“You have to have the expertise in this,” Gill said. “There’s another reason why we need to preserve this because if there’s only a few people, you can’t teach anybody else this.”

The work is physically taxing and involves a different skill set compared to working with motorized equipment. Majersky, who is now in his fourth year of trail work, said the techniques the crew uses with the crosscut are more hands-on and require special attention to detail that isn’t always needed when using power tools.

“When you’re cutting with just a handsaw and a partner, you have to take into account all kinds of different forces that are acting on the tree,” he said. “It adds a lot more complexity to the whole job. It might look like it takes a little bit longer but we make these cuts to clear the trail in a way that it’s easier for us to manage it because sometimes we are moving huge pieces of wood and we don’t want to have to cut it again if we don’t have to.”

It’s taxing work that’s rarely seen and has become more difficult to fund — much of the crew’s funding for this season came from grants Gill had to apply for.

But, recognition isn’t the reason why Gill takes on the job.

“Allowing for yourself to have a place that is quiet, is, for me, the best possibility to learn how to become quiet,” Gill said.

It’s that sense of meditation and knowing that they help preserve wildlands for others, even if it goes unnoticed by many, that makes the heavy lifting all worth it.

“We get to be the unseen forces that allow people to enjoy nature and recreation,” Majersky said. “I think it’s really cool to be in this kind of position because you get to just provide access to places that a lot of people kind of need.”

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