There’s a Shortage of Trail Builders. These Programs Can Help.


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In the summer of 2023, Mason Boring, a trails technician with the United States Forest Service (USFS), landed his dream job. He wouldn’t realize until later just how impossible the task would be.

Boring had talked his USFS bosses into sending him from his post in Tennessee to fill a position in central Idaho for a few months. His new office would stretch for 4.3 million acres and include one of the crown jewels of the national forest system: the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. A self-proclaimed wilderness nerd, Boring couldn’t pass on a chance to see it for himself.

“The very first thing I did was head into the backcountry,” Boring said. He spent a weekend traversing the Salmon-Challis National Forest by motorcycle. “When I got back, it felt like I had seen it all.” But when he looked at a map of the entire forest, his 150-mile road trip was just a small squiggle in one corner of the page. The sheer size of the wilderness felt inspiring—and incredibly daunting.

Boring’s new crew was small, and trail work is a slow process. With hundreds of miles to maintain, there was little chance Boring and his crew would even make a dent in the workload that confronted them before he returned to Tennessee. Across the country, trail work crews are waking up to a similarly deflating reality: There are hundreds of miles of trail to be built and thousands more in desperate need of maintenance. But in many cases, positions remain vacant. There’s simply no one to do the work.

An impossible task

Boring’s story is a familiar one in forests and landscapes across the country. As a former trail worker myself, I’m familiar with the glacial pace of the work. One summer, my crew spent months constructing a quarter mile of the Pacific Crest Trail. A single construction project, like a footbridge or a rock staircase, can take months to complete. The National Park Service (NPS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) each maintain thousands of miles of trail. And the Forest Service alone is responsible for more than 158,000 miles, a figure that almost equals the mileage of the National Highway System. But unlike our nation’s highways, single-track trail can’t be built with bulldozers or big machines. Instead, much of the work has to be done by hand.

It’s not just painstakingly slow—it’s also skilled labor. And there simply  aren’t enough trail workers to look after all of these trails. Federal agencies like the Forest Service, which have drastically cut the number of trail work positions since a golden age in the 1960s and ’70s, can’t even fill these reduced job openings. Private companies and nonprofits, which have stepped in to complete work that agencies used to handle in-house, struggle to recruit enough skilled workers and crew leaders.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Across the country, planners see expanding trail networks as a way to attract tourists, keep workers in other industries around, and boost quality of life. But none of these big plans can come to fruition unless we can find workers to build the trails first.

The cause of the shortage

So, why aren’t there enough trail builders? One of the big culprits is pay. Like park rangers, guides, and a host of other outdoor professionals, trail workers have long been “paid in sunsets,” i.e., very little. But as the cost of living increases across America—especially in the outdoorsy places that need trail builders most—workers say stagnant wages are forcing them to reconsider.

“For a long time, I think trails programs have gotten lucky with a workforce that shows up, is really hard working, and doesn’t expect much pay,” said Sierra LaBonte, who works as a trail crew leader in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. “Now, because we’re getting to a point where the price of living is so expensive, we can’t really rely on those folks anymore.”

A team of mules transports supplies in Flathead National Forest, Montana. (Photo: United States Forest Service)

LaBonte needs crew members who can live comfortably in the backcountry, hike up to 20 miles to work sites, and carry loads of 50 pounds or more. That’s a tall order. She said recruiting new employees has gotten increasingly difficult since she took the position in 2017.

LaBonte’s employer, the USFS, stewards huge swaths of public land across the country, particularly in the West. Nearly every iconic long-distance trail is under the purview of the Forest Service, along with countless popular backpacking destinations, from Vermont’s Green Mountains and California’s Sierra Nevada.

Despite those storied holdings, federal agencies—including the USFS, NPS, and BLM—have been operating under shrinking budgets for decades. According to a 2019 report published by the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, the number of forestry technicians employed by the Forest Service—a catchall job description that includes trail workers, wilderness rangers, and campground attendants—dropped by 49 percent from 1992 to 2018. And wages at the agency are lagging behind the rest of the working world. In 2024, an entry-level trail worker with the Forest Service can expect to earn between $15 to $17 an hour. The standard rate for a trail crew leader like LaBonte is about $20 an hour. In many places, that’s about the same rate you’d get flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant.

Red tape and unrealistic expectations

Workers at federal agencies say it’s also increasingly difficult to navigate the bureaucracy of the government. Long gone are the days when you could walk into your local ranger station and get hired on the spot. The application process, which is handled online through USAJobs.gov, is confusing. Siena Allen, who secured a position on a trail crew in Yosemite National Park in 2021, said she only succeeded in finding a job thanks to insider knowledge. “You either know someone who can show you how to navigate the system, or you fail,” she said. That’s a bottleneck this already-struggling industry simply doesn’t need.

Whether a trail position is considered frontcountry or backcountry can also have a huge effect on the experience—and the earning potential—of different positions. At popular national parks like Yosemite, Allen said a backcountry trail crew might spend nearly every night camping outdoors free of charge, while a frontcountry crew has to secure their own housing or stay in provided living quarters that could cost up to $800 a month.

Allen said there’s no easy way to learn all this information ahead of time unless you know which questions to ask. She’s seen rookie trail crew members quit because they showed up with expectations that didn’t match reality.

As a crew leader who assists in the hiring process, LaBonte tries to divulge as much information as possible.

“My goal is to be very direct and clear about what the job entails. It’s a hard job—and it is a job, not an experience,” she said. “My forest is mostly wilderness. We’re using traditional tools. We’ve got crosscuts, axes, and mules. In other forests, trail crews are riding dirt bikes and using chainsaws. They are very different programs, and I want to make it clear to people before they take the job.”

According to Chad Schneckenburger, the Forest Service’s acting national trails manager, one way the agency plans to support its trail worker employees is through overhauling the career ladder. In an email, Schneckenburger told me that the current system “emphasizes education and administrative skills.” For field-going workers, that means the highly valuable, blue-collar skills they’ve worked hard to develop—like stone masonry, carpentry, or operating heavy machinery—won’t necessarily help them qualify for higher-paying roles. The same isn’t true at the Park Service, which employs a different pay scale for skilled trades. Schneckenburger said the USFS hopes to adopt the NPS system, which could also address wage discrepancies between the two agencies. As of now, it’s unclear how quickly this transition will happen or how many jobs will be affected.

A trail crew carries crosscut saws on a trail through the woods.
A USFS trail crew transports tools to a worksite. (Photo: Mason Boring)

Stop-gap measures

Federal agencies increasingly rely on volunteers and partner organizations to keep up with the volume of work and tackle years of deferred maintenance. Boring said finding and organizing volunteers is a crucial part of his job. Back in his home district in eastern Tennessee, Boring implemented a new volunteer program called OTR, or Ocoee Trail Response, that puts chainsaws in the hands of local mountain bikers to remove brush and downed trees from trails. According to Schneckenburger, the agency’s volunteer program put 71,660 people to work in 2023, to the tune of 2.6 million hours and an economic value of more than $85 million.

That’s impressive—but those numbers can be tough to maintain. Rates of burnout can be high among volunteers, and keeping large groups of untrained folks organized isn’t always easy. So, while relying on volunteers is a good stop-gap solution, some trail-builders believe it may not be sustainable in the long run.

After government agencies and volunteer organizations, the third piece of the labor puzzle is private firms. Today, there are hundreds of private contractors in the trail industry, ranging from one-person operations to firms with dozens of employees and fleets of heavy machinery. In general, these contractors are brought in to handle one-off projects, like constructing new trails, while agency staff handles routine maintenance.

But even though those firms often offer higher wages than government agencies—often $25 per hour or more—they’re still struggling to attract enough employees.

“Our companies cannot hire enough people,” said Aaryn Kay, executive director of the Professional Trail Builders Association (PTBA). Kay is also co-owner of a trail building and consulting firm.

A team of trail builders works with shovels.
Trail builders busy at work in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest (Photo: United States Forest Service)

One of the biggest issues? Awareness. According to Kay, there are a lot of potential trail builders who might not even realize it’s a career path. In actuality, it’s a growing industry. The PTBA is a trade organization that represents more than 130 member companies. In 2023, those companies had a combined revenue of more than $250 million, a number that has grown rapidly in recent years—up from about $48 million in 2018.

“We are seeing huge growth,” Kay said. “Every company [in PTBA] that I talk to is fully booked for the next year or more.”

With projects stacking up, hiring and training workers is essential. As with agency trail work, there are challenges for new employees. Private companies go where the work is, which means frequent travel is required. And trail crews usually spend tons of time together, which can be taxing from an interpersonal perspective. But for many trail-builders, the private-firm benefits and wide variety of work are worth it.

College programs on the rise

The good news is that things could soon be changing on all sides of the industry. The severe labor shortage has sparked a renewed sense of urgency, and many agencies are pushing to standardize and professionalize the industry to make it more appealing to workers.

Over the past three years, for example, PTBA has worked in partnership with American Trails and all the federal land management agencies to build a “trails competency framework” to clearly outline industry standards.

Universities and community colleges across the country are also adapting the framework into training programs. One example is Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, which is currently enrolling students in its brand-new trails technician program, set to begin in September.

The program will include a six-month education in practical skills, and six months dedicated to project management. The yearlong program can also count toward an associates degree, or, if students choose to transfer to a four-year university, a bachelor’s degree in construction or outdoor recreation leadership. The goal is to elevate trail work to the level of other skilled trades—like plumbing or construction. Megan Bolinder, the program’s executive director, hopes it will change the way students view trail-building careers, and help them land high-paying jobs.

Colleges in Georgia, Vermont, Wyoming, and North Carolina are also launching trail-building programs of their own—all created in response to the increased demand.

If trends continue as they have, organizations—from federal agencies to nonprofits to private companies—are sure to be waiting for these new graduates with job offers in hand.

“The one thing that’s common for everyone in this industry is passion,” said Kay. “We just want people to know it’s a real job. Working in trails, you can choose to be a nomad your whole life, but you can also pay your mortgage and raise a family.”



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