The Art and Science of Stewardship

Being a volunteer Sonoma Overlook Trail steward is potentially a very diverse job. It may include arranging and managing fundraising events, organizing weekly hikes, developing, producing, and installing signs and interpretational materials, cutting water bars (ruts to direct water off the trail), writing grants to get funds to re-route and rebuild the trail, pulling invasive species, cutting branches intruding on the trail, or who knows what else. Let’s just say it’s a diverse set of potential responsibilities, and no single steward does them all. We tend to specialize.

Secret Ranger cutting branches with our newly-acquired pole saw.

Thankfully, we have quite a large group of stewards of the Sonoma Overlook Trail, so we have people who bring all of these skills and more to our local trail system. We don’t all swing into action at the same moment; it may be quiet for a while and then a steward or three might step up when their particular skills and talents are needed. We all have something to give.

On this particular day, a steward who calls herself “Secret Ranger,” and who is our current Chair, brought out our recently purchased pole saw to cut some limbs off a low-hanging tree branch to make sure people can safely pass underneath it. On this same trip, we also visited the Montini Preserve to perform the same kind of operation—cutting branches to lessen the weight on an overhanging branch. In the case of the branch on Montini, we saw an immediate result of the branch lifting 4-6 inches right away, and likely more to come as the branch continues to adjust. This is enough to allow those who are 6 feet or under to pass without trouble, and likely some even taller folk. It made a clear difference, without removing the rather large branch entirely (it is easily 14-15 inches in diameter).

These are just some of the jobs volunteer trail stewards do, almost every day.

That orange peel you just tossed aside? Yeah, don’t do that.

Facial tissues are the one piece of trash I see on the trail the most (by far), but I also see an occasional orange peel or apple core. I know where hikers who toss these aside are coming from — since they are food items, the idea is that either an animal will get it, or mother nature will.

The problem is that often neither of those are true. If an animal does not eat your leftovers (which is much less likely than you think), then it is going to be there for quite a while. But don’t just take my word for it.

In an article published in Popular Science, Alisha McDarris writes that “…food scraps like orange and banana peels can take up to two years [emphasis added] to break down in the wild, meaning they’re going to be sitting alongside the trail or in a ditch by the road for a lot longer than you might think.”

The essential problem is that the great outdoors is not like a compost pile. A compost pile is a situation that is supremely optimized to enhance the breakdown of organic matter. This is a very different environment, as it turns out, then simply beside a trail. “The conditions present in a compost pile or facility—like a microbe-rich environment, heat, and the frequent turning of materials,” writes McDarris, “are required to break down food waste so quickly. Those conditions don’t exist in nature.”

And it gets worse, as McDarris lays out:

The food itself can also make animals sick and even kill them. Most of what people leave outdoors—peels, cores, and trail mix, to name a few—is almost never food that’s part of animals’ normal diet. Often, they can’t decipher the difference between actual food and scented items like chapstick, potato chip bags, and snack bar wrappers, which can be fatal.

https://www.popsci.com/story/diy/what-happens-food-trash-outdoors/

So yeah, the cardinal rule of trails remains: If you pack it in, pack it out. Thank you very much, from the person who has to pick up the shit you leave behind.

Tissues are STILL Trash

As a volunteer trail steward, I hike the trail knowing that I have special responsibilities. I can’t just breeze through on my daily hike thinking I can ignore things like branches across the trail, invasive thistles sprouting up in the way of hikers, and trash carelessly tossed aside. I just can’t. And since I hike the trail nearly every day, I’ve pretty much seen it all. Oddly enough, the single most common piece of trash I’ve ever seen is facial tissues. I’ve even written about this before, three years ago nearly to the very day, and nothing has changed.

I think that perhaps those who toss tissues believe they will quickly degrade and not be noticed. But as reported by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), toilet paper, which is designed to degrade quickly (unlike facial tissue), can last one to three years in the outdoors before it totally degrades. So perhaps you’re counting on me to pick it up, and I suppose you’re right, as I do.

But in this day of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), is that really something you want to put on someone else? So please just carry your own tissues out. Thank you for your consideration.

Thank You for Beautifying the Trail with Your Tissue

Whenever I turn a corner on the trail and spot a discarded facial tissue (which happens with some frequency) my heart skips a beat. Ahh, I think, some hiker has left something of theirs behind for me. I approach it, casually lean down, pick it up, and slide it surreptitiously into my back pocket, hoping that no one sees me. This is because I am fundamentally selfish. I want the tissue experience to be mine and mine alone.

Just think of the metaphysical implications of the placement of that artifact. Was it left in the middle of the trail, it’s otherworldly whiteness in stark contrast to the reddish brown soil, to spark contemplation about life’s fleeting nature? Or was it deposited just so with folds carefully applied, to make one consider the nature of art? Or perhaps it was discarded almost without thought, as a commentary on the disdain with which the hiker contemplates the natural world that surrounds them.

I guess we will never know if any of these are the reason, unless I happen to witness someone in the act of placement, when I can ask them their intent. Meanwhile, I will continue to gather these symbols of humanity’s fleeting dominion wherever I find them.

Well, that was fun.

But seriously, people, tissues are trash. If you pack it in, pack it out.

The Importance of Trail Stewards

Today I was reminded why it’s important to have people dedicated to hiking our trails and doing all of the various jobs required to keep them well cared for and safe to use. Hiking along the Rattlesnake Cuttoff Trail, from the Montini property to the Overlook, I was surprised to see a tree across the trail (see pic).  I was surprised, as I didn’t recall any storm or high winds recently. But there it was anyway. I immediately took a picture and sent it off to the Chair of our stewards group, Joanna Kemper, who will work with the City of Sonoma to have it removed.

On my way back, I pulled out my handy Leatherman knife, which has a fairly good saw blade, and hacked off enough branches so at least the trail could be used until the City could come in with their chainsaw (see pic). This is, of course, just one of many jobs that we volunteer stewards perform.

For example, Fred Allebach is very active in various physical trail maintenance activities such as cutting drainage channels to make sure water flows off the trail as soon as possible. Lynn Clary has been known to hike his battery-powered Sawzall saw up the trail to take care of an overhanging limb. We likely all pick up trash when we see it.

Speaking of which, what do you think is the most-encountered piece of trash? Beer cans? Nope. Coffee cups? Close, but no cigar. It’s facial tissues. Yep, the hands-down favorite discarded item of trail hikers. And just think of it — I get to pick it up and put it in my pocket. So…yeah. Please don’t throw things on the trail. Just don’t.

We do other things too, such as raising money to do trail work that we can’t do ourselves, soliciting donations for building benches, pulling invasive non-native plant species, cutting back poison oak, and leading school trips. But it’s a labor of love, as we all love the trails and the properties they traverse. And we know that many others do too.