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Forest Service moves towards more sustainable trails

SITKA, ALASKA

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Barth Hamberg is a Harvard trained landscape architect, but he first earned his stripes with the Forest Service as a volunteer flying over Alaska rating landscapes for their scenic beauty.

Nowadays Hamberg spends more time on the ground, but his aesthetic eye is as strong as ever.

“In the Forest Service traditionally our design approach is to interpret nature for people, so when I’m working on designing a trail I try to route the trail in such a way that I’m going to expose the natural features to the greatest possible effect.”

Hiking up Hamberg’s Herring Cove trail, he points out one such highlight.

 “We’re looking at this gigantic boulder it’s the size of, a, it’s taller than a bus, not quite as long, it came down bear mountain, and then it stopped and split right in half. And you can walk through this crack between these two and it towers over your head. So the trail kinda had to go through it. Just because to walk through something like this is such a wild experience.”

In another part of the trail moss hangs loosely off a fallen log that creates a sort of archway over the trail. Walking up the log, Hamberg smiles and explains physical interaction with the environment is just as important as the scenery.

 “You actually have to kinda have to duck under it to pass, the standard specification for this is to cut this thing out, there shouldn’t be anything within seven feet above the trail, but these trails are here for people to interact with the environment, so if you have to duck and go around and if you touch something that’s all the better.”

Hamberg says Sitka has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, but building trails in the South East Alaska is especially difficult compared to other terrain around the United States,

 “The thing that is specific to southeast Alaska is we don’t have soil you can build a trail on. Our soil is organic matter over bedrock, so pretty muche very foot of most trails has to be surfaced in some matter, there’s a few exceptions to that. So it’s an expensive proposition, so in order to be efficient,  it’s gotta be laid out really well.

This terrain, Hamberg says, calls for a special approach, one where he uses numbered stakes to mark each step, log and drainage along the trail. These stakes then correspond to a spread sheet that tells contracted trail builders the exact design Hamberg has in mind.

 “It’s a field based approach to design, rather than going out and surveying a whole site and bringing it back in the office, and designing it in the office. You need to lay it out in the field and do those measurements in the field. And put the stake exactly where you want it, because you might tell them you want to save this particular root as a step.”

Dave Crowell  works for Clarence McReynolds Trail Building, based out of White Bird Idaho- the company that bid on and won Sitka’s Beaver Lake project. He’s one of the people that reads these stakes, and says,  perhaps the hardest part of trail building in Alaska is the wet weather.

“Where we’re from in Idaho, over average rain fall is about eight inches a year, it’s about eight inches a day, I think, yesterday here. I’m pretty sure that’s what we got.”

Sitka’s climate also effect trail sustainability, a major concern in Sitka, where trail building is especially expensive.  It’s things like wood-rot and erosion that have given Hamberg the most trouble. And, sometimes, his own design.

 “The Gavan Hill trail which is a giant set of stairs that people pretty much universally hate, because it’s just so hard on your knees ,and not a good walking experience. So we learned from that, that we should try to do something different, which is to reduce the slope and not necessarily stick with the same alignment, that was just created probably by some guy with a chain saw hat wanted to go deer hunting a long time ago.”

It’s lessons and obstacles that continue to inform Sitka trails.

  “So, we’re really going towards trying to build more sustainable trails that will last for the long run. Kinda think more like the Incas rather than think over a twenty year lifespan. “

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