Flat Tops crew uses hand saws to clear trees, maintain the trail | SteamboatToday.com

Flat Tops crew uses hand saws to clear trees, maintain the trail

Yampa Ranger District backcountry trail crew member Justin Benson hikes into the Flat Tops Wilderness Area carrying a 5 1/2-foot cross-cut saw used to clear timber in the wilderness, where only primitive tools are allowed.

— The Wilderness Act of 1964 serves as the guide for the Yampa Ranger District four-man backcountry crew tasked with maintaining the 75 miles of trails in the untamed wilderness.

"Man is a visitor that doesn't remain," said John Anarella, a wilderness advocate and recreation program manager for the district who oversees the crew working in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area just south of Routt County. "Natural processes are in order."

As stewards of the forest, U.S. Forest Service workers strive to abide by the rules set forth in the Wilderness Act, which states the wilderness should be "affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable."

Observant hikers might notice the curls of wood and sawdust along the North Derby Trail where last week the crew was using one of its primitive tools, a 5 1/2-foot cross-cut saw to remove trees from the trail. After the cuts were made, Anarella picked up a handful of dirt and rubbed it against the white ends of the logs to make them appear more weathered.

"It's something we've always done," Anarella said.

Anarella, 48, has been with the Forest Service since 1987 and calls the third largest wilderness area in Colorado his office. Years of trail work has him accustomed to carrying a modified shovel in his right hand that he uses to flick rocks and clear debris from the channels dug to keep water off the wilderness trails.

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"I'd probably tip over without it," said Anarella, a musician who sports a long, braided ponytail.

The ultimate goal is to keep water and trees off the wilderness trails, where motorized vehicles and mechanized tools are forbidden. That means no chainsaws are allowed to clear the spruce trees that have been falling on the trails in the Flat Tops since they started dying 60 years ago from a beetle epidemic. Beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees are the next to fall.

"For the most part, we're night janitors," Anarella said. "A lot of people don't ever see us working."

The Yampa crew is unique in that it is composed mostly of older men who have been doing trail work for years.

"Most people get out of it at a younger age because it is harder work," said crew member Justin Benson, 37, who the guys call Lucky because he fairs well at the casino and once rolled his car 7 1/2 times and survived to tell about it.

"Lots of people go, 'Why don't they let you use chainsaws?'" said Scott Livingston, 37, the leader of the crew who spends his summers in the woods and winters making snow at Steamboat Ski Area.

The arsenal of tools for clearing fallen trees in the wilderness includes a small pocket handsaw; a two-person, 36-inch cross-cut saw called "the Dandy"; and a 5 1/2-foot cross-cut saw sometimes referred to as the "misery whip." The vintage model being used last week on the North Derby Trail was a Simonds 133 that Anarella guessed was at least 60 years old.

Over the years, Anarella has collected about a half dozen old cross-cut saws that are made available through a few specialty saw companies.

"We use strictly vintage for the big trees," he said.

That's because they were made using a grinding stone that made them thicker at the teeth and thinner at the top so the saw will not get jammed up during a cut.

"They used to drop trees that were 8, 10 feet across in the Pacific Northwest with these," Anarella said.

The saws can be a bit cumbersome to carry but have some advantages over chainsaws, which have teeth that would require daily sharpening from the abuse in the backcountry. The vintage cross-cuts also are lighter, don't require fuel and start every time.

"With proper care these saws that I have could last the district hundreds of years," Anarella said.

A slit fire hose is used as a sheath for the saw to protect not only the blade, but also the person carrying it. The crew is careful where they lay the saw and take steps to make sure the cutting area is as clean as possible. The bark is removed from the tree with an ax before they make a cut, because dirt in the bark could dull the blad that Anarella said needs to be sharpened only every three years.

"They're well respected in the backcountry," he said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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