Here’s to youth: America’s conservation corps and their role on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Ben Barry, PCTA technical advisor

As a professional trail worker who got his start in the world of conservation corps, these programs have a special place in my heart. Young men and women from all over the country sign up for various programs in fields such as disaster relief, housing projects, environmental data collection, public works improvements or in our case, the maintenance and construction of trail infrastructure.

In partnership with organizations such as the American Conservation Experience,  Northwest Youth CorpsAmeriCorps National Civilian Conservation Corps, the Student Conservation Association and others, young people spend three to 11 months learning skills applicable to trail stewardship that they can use for a variety of careers in the environmental field, or in the case of some, skills that they can use to continue in the world of professional trail work.

A corp crew member clearing a new section of PCT in the northern SIerra.

A corps crew member clearing a new section of PCT in the northern Sierra.

What I didn’t understand when I originally served with the Montana Conservation Corps was how vital young people are to the maintenance and continued use of America’s wildlands; and that through this service, I was partaking in a long legacy of American trail work which had begun at the death of the frontier era. We have to wind it back to really put this into scope. When the new world was first colonized, pilgrims found an expansive Eden with old growth timber extending from coast to coast and dangers to life and limb throughout its mix. As America struggled to form a cultural identity, themes of environmental cultivation helped form the beginnings of a distinctly American culture. The effort that westward settlers put forth to overcome the hardships found on the frontier led to the spirit of grit and determination in which hard-working Americans take pride.

Clearing blowdown with a crosscut saw in the Marble Mountains.

Clearing blowdown with a crosscut saw in the Marble Mountains.

However, a special thing happened when we reached the end of the frontier era; instead of continuing to constantly expand our populations and extract resources, we set some of our wild places aside. Yellowstone and Yosemite became test pieces of the idea that we could leave some places alone for public enjoyment. Or as the Yellowstone Act (1872) put it, as a “public pleasuring ground.” Yes, that’s real. Nowadays, we think of our wild places as having intrinsic value; the protections granted to places like the Grand Canyon and Half Dome are justified by their own spectacular existence. But when these places were first established, they needed to be visited by the public to prove their worth – trails were built to showcase these special places to the public.

Smiling and dirty after a few months on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Smiling and dirty after a few months on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Today, young people use the same methods and traditional tools used to build trails in the late 1800’s. The Pacific Crest Trail’s long wilderness sections are regularly cleared of fallen trees using crosscut saws and axes, tools that were specifically built out of high tensile, American steel, to cut back the huge stands of timber found in the new world. The wedge and feather system used today to shape rocks stairs was used to build Yosemite’s famed Mist Trail in the 1890’s. Wildland fire suppression, another American concept, gave rise to traditional tools such as the Pulaski and McLeod. Learning to use these tools today, in the same way other young people used them more than 100 years ago is an incredibly special feeling. To no surprise, these crews have been rightly glorified in books such as Norman MacLean’s The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky and Robert Audretsch’s Shaping the Park and Saving the Boys.

Reading tools at the start of another full day building and maintaining America's wilderness trails.

Readying tools at the start of another full day building and maintaining America’s wilderness trails.

I signed up for a corps crew as many young people do.  I was nearing the end of my collegiate career and I still wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do. I had a sense of civic service and I liked being outside. That summer I learned how to swing an axe, dig tread and manty a mule. I slept in a tent every night for nearly four months, except of course, when I just slept on the ground, under the stars. I experienced the same adventures as many young people before me, but they were my experiences, too. Sharing this American tradition, on American lands, is special.

The entire crew posing, smiling (and chewing on the sign) at the San Jacinto Wilderness sign. Heidi Brill is on the far right.

Working in the Mountain Fire closure in San Jacinto Wilderness.

And the Pacific Crest Trail is a truly American resource. Stewarding it with your own hands is a prideful feeling. If you’re considering giving your time to a conservation corps or volunteering to care for your public lands, I can say this: it changed my life and it’ll change yours.


Pounding rocks. America’s youth at work leaving their legacy on our nation’s trails.

Benjamin Barry is a PCTA technical advisor. He works with corps crews on the Pacific Crest  Trail to help move trees and boulders, build new trail and maintain what’s out there to the highest quality standards we can manage.

Author: PCTA Staff

The mission of the Pacific Crest Trail Association is to protect, preserve and promote the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail as a world-class experience for hikers and equestrians, and for all the values provided by wild and scenic lands.