Everyone needs a bridge to help them over troubled waters at sometime and for hikers on the Margarette Falls trail that time had come. Volunteers from the East Tennessee Trail Association completed work on an eroded portion of the 2.7 mile trail March 30. A new bridge and staircase now sit about 500 yards beyond the last creek crossing before the falls.
“There was a severe erosion issue with three large seeps coming out of the trail side and the trail had collapsed,” said Joe Morris of ETTA, who noted that about 150 man hours went into the project. “It was a scramble and unsafe. That’s our big priority, to fix major structural issues with trails and stabilize treadways.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made the need even more urgent, as people sought safe ways to get outside. The easy accessibility during all seasons, short trail distance and beautiful double cascade falls at the top proved to be a powerful draw for this local hiking spot.
“We worked in here last year when the pandemic started,” said Morris. “I’d estimate about 250 people walked the trail that day. It’s not just people from Greeneville and Greene County. This trail is a bucket list trail for a lot of people in this region and out of state.”
Because the trail lies on U.S. Forest Service land, ETTA worked in partnership with the Unaka Ranger District of the USFS, which said a bridge could be built over the spot.
“We’ve been aware of soils and water issues there on the trail to Margarette Falls, which is a big emphasis of ours, to curb sedimentation and silt and other things going into the creek system there,” said Seong Hopkins, district recreation program manager. “I did a field trip with John Beaudet from ETTA, and Joe Morris and a few other folks prior to them starting work, just to see if that would be in the scope of our trail maintenance Categorical Exclusion, as far as the NEPA process, just making sure what we’ve identified for a project fits within those parameters. For bridge over 20 feet, requires higher level of NEPA.”
NEPA is a federal program that ensures the environment itself is protected but also allows public input and due process within the agency that has oversight of the area so that projects are done correctly and meets the agency’s goal to balance recreational use with its responsibility to maintain the environment. A categorical exclusion allows the agency to approve projects that don’t require extensive analysis to approve.
“The basics of it is that if the bridge had been over 20-feet, it would have required a higher level of analysis,” explained Hopkins. “It would have required our engineering department to come and take a look at it and our soils and water specialists to come take a look at it. I call it smoke and mirrors. Before there’s a finished product, there’s so much that goes on on the back end as far as analysis and planning.”
Hopkins said the USFS identified the bridge project as a high priority because of springs that were eroding the trail footpath, know as the trail corridor, and people were constantly stepping into the spring channel. The foot traffic was causing further erosion and the sediment washed into Dry Creek beside the trail, affecting drinking water and wildlife.
“A lot of the fish species that we have up here, in order for them to propagate, they need a clean water source and are really affected by heavily silted streams,” Hopkins said. “Especially during certain times of the year when they’re spawning and rearing, silt can have a big impact on their reproductive cycle.”
In addition to the bridge, ETTA volunteers also built a staircase to make a safer passage over a treacherous climb over rocks in the trail corridor. Crews used hand tools they packed in themselves and used materials around the trail, including dead locust trees and rocks, some of which weighed in the neighborhood of 1,000 pounds.
While responsibility for the trails and associated environmental considerations falls on the USFS, the agency relies heavily on volunteer organizations to accomplish its mission. Hopkins said volunteers help maintain about 40 percent of the district’s system trails. According to Morris, that number climbs to about 90 percent when other trail systems, including the Appalachian Trail are included.
“We highly encourage folks that are interested in volunteering, especially on trails, to look at established groups like ETTA,” said Hopkins. “They’re one of the few groups we have that are actually doing our blue blaze trails, which is our hiker only trails, in the district. We’ve got a lot of support for things like the AT sections, that’s well established, and SORBA (Southern Offroad Bicycle Association) and Back Country Horsemen for multi use yellow blaze trails, but for our district system trails, we don’t have a whole lot of volunteer groups operating on those at the moment.”
Hopkins said the USFS staffs three trail crew members that are forest service employees during the summer season. They work on approximately 240 miles of district system trails between the Smoky Mountains National Park and the Virginia state line.
“We rely heavily on our volunteers,” he said.
According to Morris, who resides in Greeneville, Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club is responsible for 134 miles of the Appalachian Trail, Carolina Mountain Club is responsible for 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail and East Tennessee Trail Association is responsible for about 55 miles of trail in upper East Tennessee. There are many more trail maintenance groups in the region.
Unfortunately, though some volunteers are young and all genders are welcome, many volunteers that form the core of the various trail maintenance groups are aging out.
“The volunteers that do this, for the most part, are people who are retired,” said Morris. “But, we’re also aging out. When I started, I’d go out on the regular Thursday with Eastman, There’d be 20 people show up on a Thursday. Now it’s like six or eight, maybe 10. The average age of a maintainer in Eastman’s club is 66. There’s about three or four guys that are in their 50s and then the rest of the guys are 75 plus. Carl Fritz, our volunteer coordinator, who volunteers about 1,400-2,000 hours a year, just for the AT alone, he’s 75-years-old. He’s a retired engineer from Eastman.
“Anybody who’s looking for volunteer opportunities, people of all ages, all genders, we welcome everybody. No experience needed. There’s a job for everyone.”
Although trail maintenance is hard work and volunteers get no monetary compensation, Morris said the rewards more than make up for the effort.
“It is rather involved but it’s also one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, without question,” he said. “The trail has given me way more than I can ever give to it. I got a divorce in 2009 and I started hiking all the time. I ran across a crew in Virginia. I had no clue that over 90 percent of all the maintenance on these trails is done by volunteers. Nobody is paid to do this.
“I was at Burke’s Garden, which is about 200 miles into Virginia and there was a guy sitting there giving out oranges and water when I finished a hike one day,” he added. “I was on like a four day trip. He asked me where I lived, which at that time was Jonesborough. He said, ‘Well, that’s Tennessee Eastman section. When you get home you ought to contact them.’
“This is my ninth year so that was in 2012. I went out with them and I’ve been coming out ever since. A lot of these people are like that. They just do it for years. It becomes an extension of your family, that’s one thing. We all know each other. We all like each other. We all hang out.”
Aaron Brown, another ETTA crew member, agrees.
“It’s an opportunity to give back,” Brown said. “I enjoy hiking and that’s kind of how I got into it. It’s enjoyable to come out here with all these guys and spend time with everybody. It’s a great group of people. Everybody’s here to work but we’re here to enjoy ourselves and do something good for everybody. You get a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction from accomplishing something. It’s kind of neat to come back and hike the trail and see what you did. And, if nobody does it, there won’t be a trail to walk anymore eventually.”
In addition to the personal benefits and benefits to other hikers, Hopkins and Morris agree that getting involved by supporting trail maintenance organizations is a way for hikers to take ownership of their public lands.
“These are public lands that are available to everyone,” Hopkins said. “They are owned by everyone.”
Besides volunteering to help with trail maintenance, hikers can help keep trails safe and enjoyable with simple, common sense practices.
“The biggest thing is staying within the trail corridor itself and not departing from the trail,” Hopkins said. “That creates resource issues. Things like when folks start meandering off the trail, it really causes some resource issues. But also just making sure they remove any garbage or trash. Remove any waste that you bring in. Be cautious while you’re out there. Make sure you’ve got food and water, and that you’ve got a cell phone that’s fully charged and things like that.
“One of the biggest things that people do, especially on the AT, is they cut switchbacks,” added Morris. “They shortcut turns. We all understand why they do. But it creates erosion issues. There are specific techniques that we use to get water off the trail. It’s in the spot that it’s in for a reason. If you short cut it, then you’ve created a depression that water runs into which can create trail issues down the road. That’s a biggie.
“There’s places where, especially now because we’re seeing three times the hikers that we used to, we’re seeing issues of over capacity. Some trails were not built structurally or functionally sound enough to take that kind of traffic. Margarette Falls is incredibly overused and horribly eroded. It needs a ton of work. But one of the problems in a place like this is if you get so much traffic, depending on soil quality, there’s not a whole lot you can do but just keep rehabbing it.
“People created stealthy, cowboy campsites. Build fire rings where they don’t need to.”
John Beaudet points out the importance of protecting the edges of waterways and forests along trails.
“This trail has a lot of water issues,” he said. “You want a trail to be two to three feet wide and nice and solid. If people get off the trail or water runs down the trail and washes the soil away so people go off to the side and the trail gets wider and wider and wider — you know, this trail has places wide enough to drive a pickup truck down.
“There used to be salamanders and stuff living there but the trail is poorly designed and people are getting off the trail. You get off the trail and get to the edge of the woods and the trail gets wider and wider so whatever’s living there gets wiped out. It turns into a mud hole. When we work on trails, it’s so we can have just one trail a couple of feet wide, solid and dry. If people get off of it, then they’re wearing out the forest floor, the leaf litter and the duff and everything gets destroyed.”
Morris adds, “That’s another thing they do here. They get off the trail and go down to the water at various points and create their own little pathways. Another thing they do here that nobody has any business doing is going to the top of the falls. They do not need to do that at all. That’s a big no-no. It’s dangerous and it creates all kinds of issues.”
For more information about volunteering with a trail crew, visit the Trail Maintainers Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.