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Hikers can now cross the West Fork of the Santa Barbara River with dry feet because brain surgeon Jim Schmidt drove all the way from Portland, Oregon and with six other volunteers sawed, chiseled, hammered and bolted together logs on the biggest bridge the Camino Real Ranger District of the Carson National Forest Service has built in many years.

This was a mixed group of men who’d earned their undergraduate tuition as smokejumpers, parachuting in ahead of forest fires to battle the blazes.

Senior Forest Service officer Sean Ferrell snapping photo of smokejumper and ranger crew that build the new Rio Santa Barbara bridge in the Peso Wilderness Photo by William Kemsley

 

Now retired, the smokejumpers came from Oregon, Washington State, Idaho, Texas, Colorado, Santa Fe and Angel Fire last week, September 10-15, to build a rustic bridge entirely by hand and position it across the river.

Since the Pecos is a federally designated wilderness area, motorized vehicles and machine tools are banned. Thus everything bulky had to be packed by animals three miles deep in the forest to the bridge site.

Nine horsemen and women of the Backcountry Horsemen of America volunteered to take on this task.

 

So packing lengths of timber, wire mesh to hold rocks and stone for the abutments, bulky hand tools, rigging tackle and supplies for the smokejumpers took a week-end to haul in there. And another weekend to take out the tools and remaining supplies.

 

Previously We Had to Cross the River on Slippery Logs

Hitherto, the Forest Service had bridged this section of trail with logs precariously perched upon rocks to cross the river. The logs though were easily washed from their perch in tumultuous spring run offs of mountain snow melt.

For years the Forest Service knew the only solution was a bridge. But one long enough to span the forty-foot width was costly and never reached priority in its annual budget.

The project was the culmination of a summer of preparation by Forest Ranger Craig Saum. A retired engineer who volunteered to design it assisted him.

Craig is not just an office desk planner. Nor a stand-aside director.

He is a grunt, who digs into the dirtiest tasks, like gathering and hauling rocks to build the abutments at each approach to the bridge on both sides of the river. The abutments are huge piles of rocks held together in a firm chain-link wire mesh encasements.

He was aided by seasonal Forest Rangers Ian Barbosa who when his summer season ends returns home to Brazil to work in the forests down there, and Derek Olinger, a student who returns to his university study of fish and wildlife during his winters. These three worked harder and more competently than any others I’ve ever seen on any task.

The anonymous volunteer applied his engineering skills to design and calculate the materials needed to build the bridge, working several weeks drafting the design so that the bridge can withstand the worst that the Rio Santa Barbara’s spring flooding has to offer.

 

The bridge builders set up their weeklong camp in a beautiful meadow on the banks of the West Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara.

The six other smokejumpers were Doug Wamsley, a retired Denver prosecutor who said his wife found out about the project and signed him up, Marcos Rivera a retired city planner and only one who lived his entire life in New Mexico, Jon Klingel, a retired biologist of the New Mexico Fish and Game, Tom Wilks from Oak Harbor, Washington who was working on his fifth year volunteer smokejumper project just wanting to build a bridge of this magnitude, Mike Overby an employment agency proprietor from who gathered the team together, and Jim Thompson from Sand Point, Idaho a retired civil engineer who led the pack, knowing exactly what each next task was needed .

But the project could not have been accomplished had it not been for the support of the Back Country Horsemen of America volunteers and their horses packing everything into the site. Santa Fe chapter president, Joan Lattner, vice president Tamara Hallman, state delegate Nick Martinez and secretary-treasurer Debbie Spickermann led them.

Even BCHA State Chairman Dan Key did not want to miss this occasion. Their team also included Kristen Dorner, Steve Percival, Henry Jimenez and Clayton Gibbard.

The Pecos Wilderness is the second largest wilderness area in New Mexico covering nearly 224,000 acres of mountainous wild lands. It was set aside as a Federally designated wilderness area under the Wilderness Act of l964.

This is the second bridge built this year in our local forests. But it is twice the length of the other, which was built on the Columbine Trail in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area.

An estimate of the savings the volunteers made to the Forest Service in building the bridge made by an engineering firm that has bid many similar projects was upwards of $42,000.

We Taosanians are blessed with such an abundance of wilderness lands. We are situated within an hour drive to four prime federally wilderness areas – the Pecos, of course, the popular Wheeler Peak, the Latir Peaks, and if you count it de facto, the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness study area.

Think of it, we are privileged to have access to a greater proportion of federal controlled lands around us than there is land in private hands!

It just seems to many of us that it is little to give back in our volunteer efforts to maintain and aid in any way we can for this privilege.

Hats off to those who don’t even live here and come great distances to lend a hand.

 

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