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Originally published October 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 4, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Volunteer labor worth $1 million-plus helps rebuild Mount Rainier trails

If nature floods it, they will come. "They" are trail-repair volunteers, and the earliest arrivals began streaming into flood-damaged Mount...

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If nature floods it, they will come.

"They" are trail-repair volunteers, and the earliest arrivals began streaming into flood-damaged Mount Rainier National Park in April, back when snow still concealed much of the landscape-altering wreckage caused by last November's two-day monsoon, when 18 inches of rain pounded the park.

The cumulative volunteer turnout — expected to total more than 1,700 people when final numbers are tabulated — will not quite match the scale of the endless procession of headlights drawn to Ray Kinsella's Iowa farm in the closing frames of the movie "Field of Dreams." Yet Kevin Bacher, manager of the volunteer program at Mount Rainier since 2002, thinks a similar, mystical magnetism pulled people into the park when news of its storm-ravaged condition became known.

"The volunteer effort here this summer was very gratifying," Bacher said. "It demonstrates the tremendous support that the park has in the community. We always know it's there, but when we really have a need, people do respond."

Much has been accomplished in restoring Mount Rainier's battered trail system, says the park's trail foreman, Carl Fabiani — and much work remains (see sidebar). The key achievement: making the full 90-mile loop Wonderland Trail hikeable by Aug. 3.

"Our main push was to get the Wonderland Trail useable this summer," said Fabiani, "and except for the Stevens Canyon section, we did."

Worst of all

Historically, how serious was the trail damage? Fabiani, 60, has worked at Mount Rainier for 42 years. "We've had some significant washouts over the years," he said, "but the overall damage is definitely greater this year than any other single year."

Of the $36 million believed needed to restore the park to its pre-November condition, Fabiani has a budget of roughly $2.5 million for trails.

For 2007, he had access to five National Park Service trail crews (five persons each), plus he hired two six-person contract crews from the Washington Conservation Corps to work from April through October.

The rest of his help rode in with the volunteer cavalry.

Under the banner of the Mount Rainier Recovery Program (part of the Northwest Parks and Public Lands Storm Recovery Coalition), Bacher worked with the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to coordinate which volunteers were assigned to what projects.

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In May, SCA staffers took up season-long residence within the park after clearing debris from an abandoned campground in Rainier's Longmire complex. Up to 18 people per night lived there, sleeping in tents and dining in a kitchen trailer.

"The [park] superintendent said it looked like something from the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) era," said the SCA's Jill Baum, one of Bacher's chief volunteer organizers and program director for the Mount Rainier Recovery Initiative.

Baum says herding so many disparate but cheerfully willing volunteers — some in groups, some individuals — in an effective manner initially proved challenging. "We had a few groups tripping over each other at first," she said.

By mid-June, Bacher's small Longmire office (which he shared with Baum) turned into a command center for volunteer coordination.

"People were wonderful," Baum, 37, said. "They came to us saying, 'I've got my own shovel' or 'I brought a chainsaw.' We realized we had to plan out work weeks in advance, get stuff up on a calendar and centralize things a little more. That worked."

Bacher and Baum rattle off group after group that contributed to the cause: REI (which provided a $75,000 grant as well as volunteers), Starbucks, Washington Trails Association, The Mountaineers, Earth Corps, Northwest Youth Corps, AmeriCorps, Eagle Scouts, Mount Rainier National Park Associates, high-school groups, summer-camp groups, solo hikers and many more.

A few volunteers who stand out in Bacher's mind are Jean Millan, 59, of Kent, who took part in her 12th project this past Saturday, and a woman in a geocaching club who participated in a project despite a broken arm.

He also marveled at a crew of Starbucks workers who, after completing their assigned task early, hand-carried replacement boards to the site of a washed-out bridge — making three separate round-trips. "I don't know what kind of coffee they were drinking," he said, "but they saved the park thousands of dollars in helicopter (airlift) time."

Season's over

The 2007 volunteer season came to an official end last Saturday, National Public Lands Day, with a final flurry of one-day projects and a volunteer-appreciation event later in Ashford.

Bacher says some volunteer groups have yet to supply him with work-party sizes and hours toiled. As of last week, his still-running totals stood at 1,526 volunteers and 67,958 hours worked. (This includes about 300 "regulars" who volunteer annually in visitor centers and campgrounds.)

Based on a general benchmark hourly rate for nonprofits of $18.77, Bacher calculates the value of 2007 volunteer labor already exceeds $1 million.

Last year, Rainier attracted 924 volunteers who contributed 43,844 hours. Even a large volunteer turnout during the park's centennial in 1999 topped out at 55,000 hours. Bacher is pleased.

"All of this year's numbers are records," he said.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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