“Blazing a New Trail the Old Way"
by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR
The last few months have been very rewarding for me at the Refuge. I have been trained and certified to run heavy equipment, entrusted with running the summer Youth Conservation Corp, and had the opportunity to build a new hiking trail. All three of these activities have been new experiences and have taught me a lot.
Running heavy equipment is challenging but nothing compared to running a youth program of six teenagers for the summer. These are some of the things I learned from spending the summer with a group of teenagers. First, the radio in my work truck is able to reach decibel levels that I never knew to be possible. Did you know that if you turn the volume knob in a clockwise direction that it never stops turning? I always assumed it would stop once it reached the maximum level even though I never felt the need to test this theory. I also learned that after the volume is turned all the way up, that is when most teenagers choose to ask you a question and seem to be shocked when you have to turn the radio off to ask them to repeat what they just said.
Some other things I learned this summer is the wor\d “cool” has been replaced by “fire,” it is possible to break hand tools, and the correct ratio for buying paint and paint thinner is to buy three times as much paint thinner as you think you need for every paint job. I found this ratio to be accurate when trying to clean a gallon of spilled paint out of the back of my truck and off the “yet unbroken” hand tools that were swimming around in a proverbial bowl of kiosk brown soup.
When the Youth Conservation Corp group was not painting or cleaning up paint, they were working on building a trail to the largest tree in the state. Part of the Youth Conservation Corp is for young people to gain experience using hand tools and traditional methods of construction. This meant using axes, rakes, and shovels to hand build a trail to the record cypress tree. I had to explain this many times over the summer as I was constantly asked “Why can't we use a bulldozer to build the trail?”
The digging of the trail took many hours of working in 100 degree plus heat with mosquitoes and poison ivy. When we finally reached the end of the trail, we sat down to look at the tree and admire the stature of such a magnificent specimen. I thought about how the youngest employees at the refuge created access for the public to experience the oldest living organism on the refuge. I sat wondering what the rest of the group was thinking when one of them asked me a question I had never considered.
One of the YCC workers looked up and asked, “What happens if this tree falls down tomorrow? Will we have to build a trail to the next largest tree?”
YCC group photo: (L to R) Kalin Thompson, Colton Dillion, Randi Jo Rieves, Shane Davis, Colten Adams, and Cody Allen. Credit: USFWS
I laughed out loud and said I had never honestly considered this happening. The rest of the group seemed concerned that this could happen and started to think of ways to strengthen the tree to keep it standing forever.
As the group brainstormed, I told them that I was not concerned by the tree dying. I pointed to a decaying tree and asked the group to describe what they saw. “A dead tree,” was the immediate response. I told them this was correct; however, there is probably more life in the “dead” tree than in one of similar size that was “alive.”
We discussed what a cross section of a tree looks like and talked about the growth rings and the inner and outer layers. I talked about how most of the tree is dead wood with only the outer layers having living tissue. The center of the tree is comprised of tissue that has died and a new layer (ring) of living tissue grows the next year on top of that. A large tree has only a few centimeters of living tissue surrounding it with the center of the tree being made of dead tissue, or as we call it, “wood.”
The dead tree trunk has had many visitors that utilize the decaying tissue of the tree. One of the first visitors will typically be a borer that tunnels through the wood by eating its way through the tree. This little borer has no idea that it is also a farmer. On its body are fungal spores that will grow in the tunnel it has created. Once this fungus grows, other insects visit the tree and begin to consume the fungus growing where the first visitor has been. Next, insects come to eat the insects that are eating the fungus left by the borer. Finally, woodpeckers and bears come to eat the insects that are eating the insects that are eating the fungus left by the insect eating the tree. In other words, a dead tree is full of life!
The mosquitoes decided to cut our break short so we gathered up the pieces of our shattered hand tools and started walking back to the truck. One of the YCC enrollees said they hoped the tree would at least last for about thirty years. When I asked why I was shocked by the response. “So I can show my child the trail I built with my own two hands.”
The summer has come to an end and the YCC enrollees are back in school. There are still remnants of brown paint in my truck and I am pretty sure my truck speakers will never be the same. However, the trail is still winding through the forest and the largest tree in the state still stands. For how long I do not know, but I hope long enough for this generation to pass the broken shovel handle to the next so they can do their part in building and maintaining this special refuge.