This summer, a University of Wyoming trail building program launched a work crew specifically for veterans in need of a job. The crew is the first of its kind in the country.
At Curt Gowdy State Park, the Wyoming Veterans Trail Crew was hard at work on a trail called “Cliffhanger”— a narrow singletrack with rocky ledges along the edge of a reservoir.
Near one of Cliffhanger’s sharp curves stands a twenty-foot tall dead tree. Crew member Mickey Finnell said it needs to be cut down before it falls on the trail.
“The first thing you do before you cut down a tree is you look at it,” said Finnell, “and you see which way does this tree want to fall?”
After the crew determined that, one of the members started up a chainsaw and soon the tree crashed down.
This summer there are trail crews working across the state, but this one is different. All eight members are veterans. Despite having developed special skills in the military, veterans have trouble getting hired.
Wyoming Conservation Corps Director Patrick Harrington said veterans’ high unemployment numbers encouraged them to start the program.
“There’s gotta be something to do to capture these folks and create productive citizens,” said Harrington.
Harrington said the program is designed to provide tangible skills, or ones that veterans will be able to write on a resume.
He said those include, “Leave No Trace training, Wilderness First Aid training. We will also offer them upper division University of Wyoming credits, so kind of retain that academic portion going forward which I know is something that’s important to us and to Veterans Services here on campus.”
The veterans have been learning some of those skills by maintaining trails.
Erosion is a big culprit in trail degradation, and Project Coordinator Evan Townsend said they spend time widening narrow ones and clearing overgrown brush and branches in order to extend the life of the trails.
Townsend said these kinds of efforts are valuable to the state, since Wyoming is hoping to ramp up its recreational tourism.
“Most of the trails we try to build are IMBA, which is International Mountain Biking Association,” said Townsend. “Trying to make state parks as a whole a mountain biking mecca.”
So far this summer, the crew has worked at Glendo State Park and here at Curt Gowdy, and Townsend said they’ve really made an impression on him.
“I’ve just never worked with a crew that can just non-stop work, and these guys are them. They’re elite,” Townsend said.
For some of the crew, like member Kevin Wilson, it was the education award that ultimately encouraged him to apply for the job.
“I’m going to nursing school this fall at CWC, and the AmeriCorps award for this, combined with pretty good pay over the course of the summer, just kind of worked out perfectly with my schedule,” Wilson said.
The AmeriCorps Education Award is a stipend that can only be used towards tuition or student debt.
So in addition to paying for food and housing, they can get a head start on continuing their education. Wilson said it’s a good deal for him and his fellow veterans, and a great deal for Wyoming.
“Cause I don’t think that you could really find people with the kind of work ethic that these guys have, willing to put in the type of hours that these guys are willing to put in,” said Wilson, “and do this kind of arduous work."
And their schedule is grueling. It’s 12 days on, then 2 days off. And during those 12 days, Coordinator Evan Townsend said crew members are living at the worksite.
“These guys don’t get to go home after their 10 hours of work every day,” said Townsend. “They go to camp.”
This is typical for trail crews, since work sites are often in remote places. Mickey Finnell said members divvy up chores each night, like counting and sharpening tools, getting water, cooking meals and washing dishes.
“Me and Zack over here cook dinner on the same nights. And we’re the best cooks,” said Finnell.
And if it’s not your night to cook, crew member Aaron Martin said there are a lot of ways to unwind after the long day’s work.
“Go walking around, go fishing. A lot of us work out after work,” said Martin.
Martin said that might be the best part of the job — just being outside.
“It’s such a beautiful state, too,” said Martin. “And there are a lot of fairly untouched places that you can go see and be one of the few that have seen Sinks Canyon, Wyoming — I mean, how many people have seen Sinks Canyon in the country or the world?”
And that’s where the crew will head next to continue improving the state’s trails.