Editor's note: Originally, Hillary Schwirtlich's class standing was misstated. She is a graduate student. It was also incorrectly stated when she was on a trail crew. She was on a trail crew five years ago.
The dank smell of freshly upturned soil fills the air, and the sound of clanging shovels and axes echoes through the lush forest. The sun’s rays shine through clouds and the tree canopy onto a team of busy volunteers carving out a new trail through nature.
Volunteers with Western Washington University's Western Wilderness Trail Corps began work on a new trail in the Sehome Hill Arboretum Sunday morning, Feb. 2, a project which will continue until spring quarter.
Because the project is volunteer-powered, the trail project involved little to no costs. Materials, such as rock and other resources, will be derived from the arboretum itself, said Jackson Lee, a founding member of WWTC.
The trail will open up the eastern portion of the arboretum, from the Jersey Street entrance southward, completing a loop around the entire park and giving patrons a new set of walkable trails, said senior Thomas Crisp, a member of the WWTC.
“A couple summers ago, someone went in without permission and did some illegal trail building," Crisp said. "So there’s already a decent trail out there.”
These illegally-built “social” trails exist throughout the arboretum, and the Sehome Hill Arboretum Board of Governors hopes the new improvements will concentrate foot traffic, Crisp said.
Mike Bellis and Arlen Bogaards went with the volunteers on Sunday. They are both from Washington Trails Association, an organization that helps facilitate the project by supplying tools and liability coverage for volunteers.
“Often times these social trails are placed in a haphazard manner that is more damaging to the environment than a properly built trail would be,” Bellis said.
Because of these trails, the work crew will only have to widen the thin trail, reroute it around steep areas and possibly remove a tree if necessary, Crisp said.
Issues of water drainage have to be considered as well. In one spot on the trail, rainwater would pool at a low point. Volunteers planned for a water bar — a drainage device used in trail building — builders put rocks or a log in the low spot to guide water across the trail and downhill, second-year grad student Sahara Suval said.
The corps was founded last quarter by students in an environmental stewardship class at Huxley College of the Environment. The arboretum trail development was their quarter-long project, Crisp said.
The corps worked with the Sehome Hill Arboretum Board of Governors to set the plan in motion. The board had a plan of trail systems it eventually wanted to implement and walked through the park with the Trail Corps members to show them what needed to be done and where, Crisp said.
Lee has worked on trails in forests around Washington with other volunteer organizations for the past three summers and has gained a lot of experience.
“But one of the things that was missing from the volunteer organizations was our age group — college-aged kids,” Lee said.
A main goal of the WWTC is to give students the skills and networking necessary to go out and find opportunities to build trails elsewhere, he said.
The corps set up a table in Red Square last week and gathered about 20 volunteers. A total workforce of 24 people turned out, including the two members of Washington Trails Association.
Many of the volunteers had trail-building experience, including senior Hillary Schwirtlich, who was part of AmeriCorps trail crew last summer and built trails throughout the six-month season near Wenatchee, Wash.
“The thing about trail work is that it is sometimes not-rewarding, back-breaking, hard work, but it’s amazing, and it puts you in beautiful places,” Suval said. “And you get to see the fruits of your labor at the end of the day.”
Weekly work parties will improve the trail until the project is finished. The new trail will connect the network of trails throughout the arboretum, completing the circle in this lush little forest in Western’s own backyard.