The PCTA’s saw program is nationally recognized

Frequently when I explain the scope of my job and the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s work, the responses are usually very similar: “I didn’t know you did all that” or “I thought you just fixed the trail.”

Most people don’t realize that much of the PCTA’s work is behind the scenes advocating for changes in agency policy or for Congressional action to support and make our work successful. The other thing people don’t realize is how long it takes to make change happen.

In case you missed it, in late July the U.S. Forest Service announced a historic new national saw policy establishing national training, evaluation and certification requirements for the use of chain saws and crosscut saws. These policies cover both government employees and volunteers and cooperators such as the PCTA, for any use of saws in national forests.

PCTA Saw Program photo

Photo by Gray Feather Photography

The Forest Service now has a comprehensive national policy for use of saws that for the first time allows cooperating partner and volunteer organizations to develop their own saw training, evaluation and certification programs in partnership with the Forest Service. It is also the first time that sawyer certifications will be seamless across national forest boundaries.

Since joining the PCTA in 2007, establishing a volunteer-led trailwide saw program for our volunteers was one of my goals. Why? The Forest Service requires training, evaluation, and certification for employees and volunteers who operate chain and crosscut saws for work on public lands. Without a PCTA-led program, our volunteers faced numerous challenges in obtaining and using their certifications to get work done on the PCT.

Volunteers participate in the PCTA saw training program.

Photo by Gray Feather Photography

First, volunteers were required to contact their local Forest Service offices to find out the availability of appropriate training. This alone posed many challenges. Was the training scheduled for the weekend when the volunteer wasn’t working? Was it focused on using a saw to remove logs from a trail or to fell a tree during a fire? Was training available for using the lesser-known, traditional crosscut saw? And lastly, was there space available to include several PCT volunteers? If a volunteer was lucky enough to overcome these hurdles and eventually get certified, chances where good that they could only use that certification in the Forest from which they received it. Certifications weren’t easily transferable across Forests or to National Parks.

Each year, hundreds of PCT volunteers, including those from the PCTA, Washington Trails Association, Tahoe Rim Trail Association and Backcountry Horsemen, clear thousands of logs from the trail to keep it open and safe. Overcoming these saw certification-related challenges was a big, big deal.

Learn to use a crosscut saw in our training program.

Photo by Gray Feather Photography

In 2007, Winston Rall, then the Forest Service Region 6 Health and Safety Specialist, recognized that the scarcity of saw certification opportunities was an impediment to volunteer trail work. He knew that capable volunteer organizations could become self-sufficient to conduct their own training and certification programs. Recognizing the PCTA’s technical skills and excellent safety record, Winston selected a few PCTA volunteer sawyers and personally trained and certified them to conduct saw trainings and evaluations. In order to qualify for the training, volunteers had to demonstrate not only proficient use of the saw, but also excellent teaching and record-keeping skills. Five PCTA volunteers in Oregon and Washington became instructors, and began working with individual forests along the PCT, teaching and conducting field evaluations at large training events and small work-parties.

Kim Owen, one of the original five instructors fondly recalled: “I remember that I did not have enough vacation time so I played hooky from work to attend Winston’s week-long crosscut training class. The following year, I was excited to be invited to an “Advanced Crosscut Saw Training Class” also given by Winston. During the evening meal, I thanked Jon Robertson, our Forest Service sponsor for inviting me, and he replied: ‘Kim, don’t thank me. Tomorrow, Bill, Joel (other participating volunteers) and you will come out as instructors, and then you need to go out and start a volunteer saw program.’ I feel that statement was the catalyst for our PCTA saw program.”

Our saw training and certification program.

Photo by Gray Feather Photography

Problem solved? Not really. These volunteer trainers still had to rely on Forest Service employees to process and approve paperwork for the sawyers they were certifying. At that time, unless you were a former Forest Service employee or logging contractor, it was almost unheard of to be approved to conduct formal training and certification on behalf of the agency. It was a real challenge for local Forest Services officials to accept these new volunteer trainers, let alone allow them to work in multiple national forests.

In 2009, the PCTA signed an agreement with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and California State Parks in which the agencies accepted and recognized our volunteer chain- and crosscut-saw operators, regardless of whether they were trained and certified by an agency or a PCTA instructor.

Class on how to use a crosscut or chainsaw.

Photo by Gray Feather Photography

To fulfill our obligations outlined in the agreement and strengthen our ability to certify volunteers, the PCTA and our volunteer instructors worked with the Forest Service to draft one of the agency’s first saw training and certification programs to be managed and led by a nonprofit partner. The program includes requirements for the proper use of chain and crosscut saws as well as training protocols and safety, among other things. The PCTA’s program has served as model for other trail organizations to build programs of their own.

With Winston and the PCTA leading the way, the Forest Service recognized increasingly that its policy posed many limitations and challenges for volunteer groups across the county. The agency worked for many years to revise its policy. With occasional nudges from vocal volunteer groups such as the PCTA, combined with the determination of a few Forest Service employees, the new unified national saw policy moved through the multi-year approval process to its final release last summer.

“The PCTA’s saw program plays an essential role in maintaining and passing down the traditional forestry skills used to keep trail systems in the wilderness open to the public,” said David Roe, a PCTA volunteer saw instructor.

“I am continuously amazed at how our program has grown and how integral the PCTA has been to getting this national policy approved,” said Leif Hovin, a PCTA volunteer saw instructor. “What a huge success, and a terrific accomplishment for all who have been involved. This new policy will benefit all volunteer trail organizations nationwide.”

Today, the PCTA’s program and our volunteers are recognized leaders in the volunteer saw training and certification realm. We continuously participate in national trainings and discussions on how the Forest Service can improve its training and support of nonprofit groups and other trail crews. It’s a privilege to have worked with volunteers and Forest Service employees who made the PCTA’s saw program and the national saw policy successful.

Support our trail crews by donating or volunteering today.

Saw crew training hikes in Oregon.

Photo by Gray Feather Photography

Author: Jennifer Tripp

Jennifer Tripp has trail-wide responsibility as our Associate Director of Trail Operations. She helps coordinate our five Regional Representatives and trail maintenance program while also working on everything from volunteer management to permanently protecting parcels of the PCT. When not traveling for trail related business, she splits her time between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.