Posted by: James Wapotich | April 10, 2014

Trail Quest: Los Padres Forest Association

If you’ve spent time in our local backcountry, you may have noticed several things. First, that chaparral grows quickly and with each new rainy season the trails are in need of some level of maintenance. And second, that regrowth and damage from our various forest fires has added new challenges and hazards to trail conditions that also require attention.

You may have also seen groups of volunteers out maintaining our trails. One of these groups is Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA), which works closely with the Forest Service to help maintain backcountry trails in Los Padres National Forest.

Recently, LPFA hosted a three-day trail work trip in the San Rafael Wilderness. A group of about 15 volunteers, mostly experienced backpackers, arrived at Nira Campground, where they were met by volunteer trail crew leader Mike Smith and his string of pack goats.

Los Padres Forest Association volunteer trail work national forest manzana creek trail san rafael wilderness backcountry

Volunteers Matt Spencer and James Mills use a cross cut saw to remove a large tree across the trail

Following a safety briefing by Mr. Smith identifying the potential hazards of trail work and the backcountry in general, the volunteers gathered their gear and the tools needed for the trip, and hit the trail. The main group backpacked to Manzana Narrows Camp, while a second group continued onto Happy Hunting Ground.

On the way to Manzana Narrows a sign was installed at Ray’s Camp, and several crossings were cleared of debris from the recent rains. A trail sign was also installed at the beginning of Big Cone Spruce Trail.

Saturday morning following another safety overview, the group was divided into two crews. One crew cleared fallen trees across Big Cone Spruce Trail from the juncture with Manzana Trail to Big Cone Spruce Camp, while another did the same from Manzana Narrows to Happy Hunting Ground. The third crew, which had camped at Happy Hunting Ground, cleared the trail from Happy Hunting Ground to White Ledge and over to South Fork Station.

map los padres national forest manzana creek trail san rafael wilderness lost valley nira big cone spruce white ledge ray's camp narrows fish

Map courtesy

In all, about 20 trees were cleared during the day, including a large coulter pine that had fallen across the trail, which took about two hours to cut and move. Because the work took place in a designated wilderness no power tools could be used to remove the trees, and so volunteers worked with cross cut saws, employing techniques that were commonly used in the days before chainsaws.

Most of the trees cleared were either burned or partially burned during the 2007 Zaca Fire that had recently fallen. In addition to cutting out fallen trees, other trail work projects have included clearing chaparral and removing slide debris from trails.

By mid-afternoon the volunteers completed their work and returned to camp, where they were treated to a dinner of barbecue tri-tip, salad and garlic bread provided by LPFA and packed in by the goats. The following day the volunteers hiked out.

In addition to providing one a chance to get out in nature and give something back to the forest, these trips can also be a great opportunity to connect with fellow backpackers and learn about trail conditions and new places to see in the backcountry.

A resident of Mission Hills, near Lompoc, Mr. Smith, first visited the San Rafael Wilderness in his youth with the Boy Scouts. Over the years he continued backpacking, and in 1996, joined the LPFA following a trip along the Upper Sisquoc River.

Goat packer los padres forest association volunteer trail work backcountry

Pack goats carrying in tools and food for the trail project

“It was a trip that I’d done many times before, and I noticed that the trail conditions since the last time I was there had just degraded so poorly that I called the Forest Service, and literally asked if they had a program for volunteers to help maintain the trails.” Mr. Smith told the News-Press. He was referred to Kerry Kellogg at the Forest Service, who along with Joe Duran and Dave Weaver had just started the Volunteer Wilderness Ranger Program to help train and coordinate volunteers to do trail maintenance.

“The first few projects I lead, I just took friends and family on day projects, and got used to using the radio and satellite phone, and learning the protocols” Mr. Smith recalled “I then started leading small groups, and not too long after that overnight projects”.

Mr. Smith now leads on average six trips per year, most of them in the San Rafael Wilderness.

In 2002, looking for a way to more easily carry tools and food further into the backcountry, Mr. Smith hit on the idea of using pack goats, which can typically carry anywhere from 30-45 pounds. Mr. Smith does bring some grain and treats as rewards for the goats, but for the most part they’re able to live off the chaparral, in fact, one of their favorite things to eat is poison oak.

A mechanical engineer for United Launch Alliance at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Mr. Smith in his free time also makes tools for trail work, taking existing maintenance tools and modifying them to the unique demands of working with chaparral.

Ray's Camp Los Padres Forest Association

Mike puts the finishing touches on the new sign at Ray’s Camp

Last year LPFA volunteers put in 6,000 hours, doing trail and campsite maintenance, trail surveys and wilderness patrol, saving the Forest Service roughly $150,000 in personnel costs.

Originally called Los Padres Interpretive Association, LPFA was started in 1979 by a group of outdoor enthusiasts, among them local historian and outdoorsman E. R. “Jim” Blakley. The group’s focus was to make people aware of our local backcountry and what it has to offer. The group hosted slideshow presentations about the forest and led interpretive hikes and backpacking trips.

During the late 1990s, as the Forest Service’s budget for trail maintenance and personnel began to shrink, LPFA started to also take on trail work projects.

“We were seeing the Forest Service getting further and further behind on the backlog of trails that needed to get fixed, and so we signed a volunteer agreement with them to help do trail maintenance, and expanded our scope to more than just interpretive hikes.” Jasonn Beckstrand, LPFA President told the News-Press.

During this same time, in addition to the Volunteer Wilderness Ranger Program, the Forest Service also started a Volunteer Wrangler Program. Volunteer Wranglers provide their time and stock animals to support trail maintenance and other projects in the forest. LPFA now manages both of these programs.

los padres forest association volunteer trail work backcountry

Volunteers Duane Pearcy, Valerie Norton, Mike Smith and Kail Wahtne work to clear a tree and other debris from a creek crossing along Manzana Trail

”One of our main goals is to make sure these trails stay open for future generations to enjoy.” Mr. Beckstrand shared.

An electrical engineer for Kollmorgen in Goleta, and backpacking enthusiast, Mr. Beckstrand’s own introduction to Los Padres National Forest came when he moved to Santa Barbara from San Diego in 1994.

In an effort to learn more about trail conditions and some of the more remote locations within the backcountry, he called the Forest Service, who in turn put him touch with the LPFA. After participating in several volunteers trips he became a member, and in 2008 took on the role of President.

In 2012, Mr. Beckstrand was awarded Volunteer Coordinator of the Year, a national award given to him by the Forest Service. He was recognized for his work in coordinating and training volunteers to do comprehensive trail and campsite surveys, to help the Forest Service apply for restoration funds available from the 2007 Zaca Fire and 2003 Piru Fire.

Currently LPFA is seeking donations to help replace equipment lost during the 2013 White Fire. The fire burned the room at Los Prietos Ranger Station where LPFA stored its equipment. The Forest Service has recently made another building at the compound available, but it will require additional work by volunteers before it’s ready.

The group also maintains and supports the Wheeler Gorge Interpretive Center, which hosts family-oriented events on the weekends, throughout the year.

To learn more about the LPFA or help out, or for a listing of upcoming events offered at Wheeler Gorge, go to And for more information about upcoming volunteer trail work opportunities contact either Mr. Beckstrand at, or LPFA Executive Director, Bryan Conant at

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 4th, 2014 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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