Trails for everyone, forever

Home News Magazine Features Gary Paull: A Champion for Public Lands
Throughout his long career, Gary Paull covered many miles of trails. Photo from WTA archives.

Gary Paull: A Champion for Public Lands

From the office to the outdoors, Gary Paull worked hard for trails throughout his long career with the U.S. Forest Service | by Anna Roth

WTA couldn’t do our work without help from volunteers, members and partners. Every trip report written, shovelful of soil moved and petition signed helps support Washington’s trails. But there are some individuals whose hard work and dedication to WTA fundamentally shape our world. Their extraordinary service, commitment and leadership over the course of many years have a transformational impact on WTA. We honor these individuals with the White Hat Award.

Gary Paull at Dishpan Gap.

Fewer than 10 people have received this award. Most of the recipients are individuals who were involved in the establishment of WTA, like our founder Louise Marshall or longtime executive director Elizabeth Lunney. Last November we branched out, awarding our first White Hat to a partner: Gary Paull, wilderness and trails program coordinator for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. It’s an award that’s well deserved.

“Gary exemplifies what it means to be a steward of our public lands.”
—Andrea Imler, WTA’s advocacy director

Gary retired in October after 42 years in the U.S. Forest Service. His career began with two years on a timber presale crew on the Umatilla National Forest, followed by 11 seasons working on the Chelan District as a wilderness ranger and in a variety of other capacities. After years of on-the-ground work, Gary brought his expertise to the administration side of the agency. He joined the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest in 1988 as trails coordinator for the Darrington Ranger District. Four years later, he moved into a new position, a larger role as forest coordinator for its trails and wilderness programs.

The creation of the wilderness and trails coordinator position marked a pivotal moment in the Forest Service. The agency had acknowledged the value of trails and the need for permanent staff to care for them. The new position made it possible for Gary to help shape wilderness and recreation on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest for the next 26 years.

By the end of his career, Gary was managing Forest Service staff, contractors and a host of volunteer organizations to keep trails on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest open and serviceable to the public. He also helped guide agency direction in the process, leading to the establishment of the Wild Sky Wilderness, expansion of the Alpine Lake Wilderness and creation of the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail.

Gary did a lot of different work during his years in the Forest Service, including carrying a fire ring to a site above Lake Chelan. Photo courtesy Gary Paull.

“Gary could connect dots where most of us saw a blank page and led us in making lemons into lemonade.” —Bridget Wisniewski, forestry technician, Darrington Ranger District

Over the course of his career, Gary reports some good changes—like an increased number of women working in the Forest Service and an effort to increase diversity in the agency’s staff. But other changes, like ever-decreasing funding, made taking care of the resources more challenging. One thing never changed, though: visitation to the backcountry.

“While cleaning out my desk, I found a brochure about visiting the Glacier Peak Wilderness,” Gary said. “It was from ‘75 or ‘76, but all you’d have to do to make it relevant to today is replace the dates. People were saying, ‘Trails aren’t maintained, bridges aren’t getting rebuilt, there’s trash, not enough parking at trailheads and there are too many people on this trail.’”

Sound familiar? These issues are still cited today. But when Gary was starting his career, the Forest Service had more money to employ staff who could help mitigate those issues.

“We had about 10 paid wilderness rangers on each district in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Gary said. “They would talk to hikers and equestrians about how to protect wilderness resources and where to camp, move pit toilets, replace signs, clean up fire pits, rehab impacted areas and even write the occasional ticket.”

However, as the ‘90s progressed, money got tighter. Congress reduced the funds available to the forest for overhead costs. The National Forests boast the motto: “Land of Many Uses”, but with Congress’s funding withdrawal, those uses began to struggle. The logging industry became more restricted. An industry that once produced up to 300 million board feet of timber per year across the forest dwindled to nearly nothing and trail programs suffered from the funding withdrawal. With all activities on the forest inadequately funded, staffing for trails decreased dramatically and money for trail crews and wilderness rangers evaporated.

The federal investment that had given Gary his job was vanishing quickly. In 1996, Congress significantly reduced the funds dedicated to trails programs, and introduced the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project. This program shifted the responsibility to individual ranger districts, directing them to find a creative way to make up some of the money that Congress had just taken away.

In response to this directive, Gary and his colleagues in Washington and Oregon came up with the Trail Park Pass. Funds for the passes, which were used for parking at trailheads on National Forest land, went toward trail maintenance. The project morphed into the Recreation Enhancement Act, which kept many features of the original program but put more emphasis on trailhead facilities such as toilets, garbage pickup and picnic tables.

Today, sales from the pass (now known as the Northwest Forest Pass) go toward funding nearly all of the seasonal workforce that maintains trails and trailheads across the forest. But the money doesn’t cover the loss of permanent staff caused by decreasing appropriations.

One example Gary gives of the staffing reductions puts the issue in stark relief.

“My old boss came over for my retirement party and he brought the org chart from Darrington in the ‘70s. He used to have 80 people who worked for him full time, and 150 seasonal employees.”

Thanks to the decrease in federal investment and funding, that same position today supervises just six people.

Gary Paull enjoys hiking the trails that he's worked hard to protect over his career, from the Pasayten to the Mountain Loop Highway. Photo courtesy Gary Paull.

“Gary’s ability to bring the trail community together to make good stuff happen makes him a true trail hero.” —Tim Van Beek, WTA field programs manager

Volunteers were always a component of Forest Service crews, and as funding decreased, they began to play more of a role. But managing them was a tall order for staff with competing responsibilities.

In the early ‘90s Gary met WTA’s new director, Greg Ball. Ball wanted to know how volunteers could enhance the forest’s trail maintenance program. Gary was familiar with working with volunteers; he had done so in the Chelan Ranger District and at Darrington. The key was to figure out a partnership that provided consistent results—and also a fun experience.

They found that balance by crafting a unique cost-share agreement whereby the Forest Service provided funds to WTA to manage volunteers. The Forest Service provided the projects and WTA recruited, trained, outfitted and led the volunteers. The pilot program worked better than anyone expected. Over 25 years, that pilot program became the largest statewide volunteer trail maintenance program in the U.S.

With so many volunteers stepping up, a mindset developed among some in the forest service that volunteers could do it all. But that wasn’t—and still isn’t—the case.

“We can’t have volunteers working with explosives or piloting a helicopter to bring in bridge stringers,” Gary said. “It is critically important that the Forest Service maintains an experienced cadre to take on the projects that will enhance what volunteers do and handle the projects where volunteers cannot be utilized.”

Besides establishing the volunteer program, Gary used his expertise to partner the Forest Service with WTA and other nonprofits in order to help a multitude of trails. The partnership supported grant applications and the permitting process of new projects.

Gary works at an early WTA weeklong trip at Dishpan Gap. Gary was a powerful partner for WTA throughout his career. Photo courtesy Gary Paull.

“Gary not only knew the district, he hiked most of the trails, which gave him the insight to make informed recommendations.” —Adrienne Hall, former supervisory forestry technician, Darrington Ranger District

Gary’s institutional knowledge and understanding of the agency is vast. He can rattle off budget numbers, acreages of wilderness and total miles on districts at the drop of a hat. But there are few people like him left at the agency, and losing that kind of knowledge can affect productivity and partnerships.

“You need to have people who are familiar with budgets and volunteers in order to leverage the funding we have to make the biggest difference on the ground,” Gary said. “They need to know when to use a volunteer crew and when to use contractors or their own crew. That takes time to learn.”

Despite his concerns, Gary says he’s curious to see what the future holds for public lands. He thinks there is hope for better funding of trails with the current move to separate wildfire funding from recreation funding.

“If the piece of the budget pie taken up by wildfire funding was freed up, I think we could do a lot,” he said.

He’s also thankful to see how volunteers have mobilized. He reflects on how much WTA’s influence has grown.

“When we started this program, no one else in the country was doing it, and it’s just amazing watching the growth,” Gary said. “I’m incredibly proud of the model we established, of how citizens can work with government to protect the resources we have.”

People are enjoying and, as best they can, protecting those resources. Now the question is whether the government will help its citizens. As Gary said, “We have an embarrassment of natural riches here. There’s more designated wilderness within 100 miles of Seattle than any other metro area in the country.”

But an embarrassment of riches needs stewards to manage it well. So it stands to reason that our government needs to invest in more people like Gary, dedicated stewards with an abiding connection to the land and a commitment to work hard to ensure that land is protected.

Gary’s career shaped WTA and the forests Washingtonians love to play in, but with his retirement, he leaves big boots to fill. Let’s hope we can look forward to awarding another White Hat to an agency partner like him in the future.

This article originally appeared in the Jan+Feb 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.