McCall resident Jeff Halligan is Idaho born and bred, and Idaho’s forests have been his calling his entire adult life.
Growing up in Boise, Halligan graduated high school in 1978. On graduation night, he skipped his class party to move to McCall so he could start his summer job with the Forest Service. In his early twenties Halligan worked various jobs – in logging, for an outfitter, and in the ski industry as a lift mechanic in Sun Valley. By 1989 Halligan was back in the McCall area, working a packing position for the Forest Service in the Chamberlain Basin. Also working for the Forest Service in the same area was a woman named Jenni Blake. Soon, Halligan and Blake married, and for six summers they worked together out of the Chamberlain Basin Guard Station.
Halligan’s early work with the Forest Service focused on trails creation and maintenance, working out of the McCall District until 2003. After that, jobs and life took Halligan and Blake around the region to work in various forests, sometimes together, sometimes apart, but they always considered McCall their home base, the place they plan to eventually retire.
In 2000, prompted by his own enjoyment of winter recreation, Halligan, Randy Skinner and others created the Payette Avalanche Center, which provides advisories on avalanche danger in the recreation areas surrounding McCall as well as education and advice about how to avoid being caught in an avalanche or how to increase your chances of survival if you are caught.
In 2005, Halligan and Blake purchased Gravity Sports. They were both working fulltime for the Forest Service and trying to run the store, a big challenge which left little free time, so in 2007 Halligan resigned from the Forest Service to run the store, which he did until they decided to sell Gravity Sports in 2010.
THE BEGINNINGS OF IDAHO TRAILS ASSOCIATION
That same year – 2010 – Blake, Halligan, Sally Ferguson, Brad Brooks, Brad Smith and others created the Idaho Trails Association (ITA) with the mission of promoting the continued enjoyment of Idaho’s hiking trails. As ITA Board President Ferguson noted in the organization’s initial Annual Report, “On June 15, 2010 Idaho Trails Association held its first official board meeting and by the end of August had successfully completed its first two projects: six miles of trail were restored on the Payette National Forest and in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness; 370 downed trees were removed using cross-cut saws, 24 volunteers contributed 750 hours. With these accomplishments a new era of trail stewardship in Idaho was launched!” Halligan and Blake both participated in those initial projects.
Work once again took the couple away from this area for a time. In 2010 Blake was transferred to Montana, and Halligan went with her. Halligan had been working for various nonprofits, and created his own company, BD Recreation Consultants. (BD stands for black dog, which describes the couple’s dog, Olive.) Halligan would contract with the Forest Service to do surveying, move crews and pack their gear and garbage after a project, using his own horses and mules. Eventually, the Forest Service realized they needed a contract manager to keep an eye on all the other contractors and in 2010 hired Halligan to work in that capacity primarily out of the North Fork Ranger District in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
Back in McCall, Halligan began volunteering for ITA again. Sally Ferguson had been running ITA on a volunteer basis, and in 2014 took a position with the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation so Halligan found himself quickly promoted to board president of ITA. As ITA grew both in fundraising and projects it was clear a paid executive director was needed. Initially Halligan worked that position on a contract basis – having resigned from the board to avoid any conflict of interest – and as of March 2017 was hired as the ITA’s fulltime Executive Director.
When asked what ITA projects are on board for this summer, Halligan smiled and laughed like someone a bit overwhelmed but in a good way, saying, “Our youth program!” He added that it’s keeping him very busy as the ITA rolls out its newest program.
Halligan says the idea to bring in younger ITA volunteers has been germinating for several years. Most ITA volunteers – and indeed, most hikers, says Halligan – seem to be older, often retired. Sometimes Halligan sees younger families on ITA projects, but rarely people in their teens. Creating a program where youth would work in the backcountry on overnight trips with adult supervision requires several types of certification for group leaders in order to meet insurance and state requirements, and Halligan didn’t have those. Looking into school-based programs, he happened to meet a couple who were creating their own program and had been working with youth for 30 years. They already had all the necessary certifications. They were a good fit for ITA’s new program.
Next on Halligan’s agenda was securing funding. The Wood River Women’s Foundation provided an initial grant of $13,800 to get the program going. The ITA’s first youth project will be in the Sun Valley area this summer. Halligan’s vision for the program is to create one week backcountry trips working in remote areas where kids will be untethered from their digital devices. They’ll become a community supporting each other as they work as a team, doing the cooking, cleaning and camp chores, learning Leave No Trace practices including how to poop in the woods. They’ll learn to interact respectfully with each other and the adult supervisors. This summer’s youth counselors include a biologist, a naturalist, and a ninth-grade teacher.
Halligan’s own involvement in this year’s youth project will be using his horses and mules to pack in the group’s gear, meeting the kids at the trail head, and then packing out their gear at the end of the week.
Halligan wants the program to serve at-risk youth, which he defines as those who wouldn’t otherwise have opportunities to camp outside, whether due to financial obstacles or belonging to families that just aren’t into camping. When he visits school classrooms to talk about the program, he tells teachers he’s looking for kids like “that quiet one in the back.” This summer, there will be only the single one-week project, but in future years Halligan anticipates having five one-week projects across the state each summer, limited to 10-12 youth so that the entire group is kept to under fifteen people. He also hopes to add a couple of one-day youth projects near Boise each summer.
In addition to providing the kids with hands-on experience in camping and trail maintenance, Halligan hopes the program will create future trail users who will see the value in preserving Idaho’s trails and wilderness. “Maybe they come back next year, as interns, or in Youth Corps. This experience can give them a step up on later jobs,” says Halligan.
ADULT VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
ITA survives and thrives on the willingness of volunteers to give their time and energy to maintaining Idaho’s trails. When visiting the ITA website’s Projects page, one notices that ITA offers many one-day trail work opportunities where volunteers meet at a trail head and work on a section of trail that’s within one to five miles. The first Saturday of July, every year, that one-day project is at Hum Lake, northeast of McCall and one of two trails that the fledgling ITA worked on in 2010. “That project fills up every year,” says Halligan. “Someone described it as a ‘gateway drug’ because it hooks people. A mom and daughter get to work together with a cross-cut saw, clearing a big log off a section of trail. Sixteen-year-old girls start the day not talking and by the end they’re rolling up their sleeves and flexing their biceps!”
ITA also offers overnight volunteering opportunities. Some are four-day projects, like work on a trail along the North Fork of Lick Creek. (The ITA is clearing trail from the center out, keeping both ends blocked until it’s all cleared.) Other options are week-long projects, of two types. For the first type, volunteers backpack with all their own gear, food and tools for the entire week, often moving their camp as they progress with the trail work; an example would be a trip to the Upper Priest Lake area. For the second type, volunteers have their camping gear, food and tools transported to the location by horses and mules, and hike in with just a day pack, such as into the Seven Devils area. And then there are what Halligan refers to as “showcase projects” where in addition to packing in all the gear, food and tools needed by the volunteers (who hike in with a day pack), ITA hires a chef to do the cooking. “For some people, these longer projects are the first time they’ve slept away from their car,” says Halligan. “It’s a great way for people to see new country with some support. A guy from Wisconsin signed up for a Sawtooths project, timing it so he’s with us the first week he’s here before heading off to explore on his own for another two weeks.”
ITA’S WORK ETHIC AND COMMUNITY SUPPORT
“When the ITA started, volunteer Clem Pope had already spent 47 years working on trails in the wilderness,” says Halligan. “He’d been my boss for years and shared with me ideas on how to get ITA established. I remember him saying, ‘Prove yourself before you try to grow.’ That’s my approach in my work with ITA. We want people coming to ITA for project help, so initially I wanted to impress them with the quality of our work. Now, we have more requests than we can handle so we pick and choose those that fit our mission and ability to accomplish.”
A few statistics from 2017 paint a picture of what ITA accomplishes: 215 volunteers; 5,175 volunteer hours; 103 miles of trail cleared; 1,003 logs removed; 160 campsites inventoried; and 172 miles of trails surveyed. The latter two tasks were newly undertaken in 2017. ITA’s goals and accomplishments grow every year. Soon their annual reporting will include the number of at-risk youth served.
ITA has been fortunate to have funding and supplies provided by some big-name companies, such as REI (with ITA from the start), Clif Bar, Cabelas, HP, and Micron, as well as more local businesses as May Hardware, Sawtooth Brewery and D&B Supply. The Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation helps ITA promote its programs across Idaho and the National Forest Foundation helps fund planning and logistics for projects. The ITA partners with several nonprofits to accomplish its goals – including Backcountry Horsemen of Idaho, Idaho Conservation League, Sawtooth Society, Selway Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation and Friends of Scotchman’s Peak Wilderness. And of course, ITA has a close partnership with the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management who manage the public lands where these projects take place, lightening the financial and manpower burdens on those underfunded agencies to maintain existing trails.
Summing up the ITA’s approach to its work, Halligan says “It’s safety first, quality work second, and have fun on all our projects.” The approach is effective, demonstrated by the ITA’s growth. Idaho’s trails are receiving some much-needed tender loving care from volunteers who learn trail-maintenance skills while reconnecting with wilderness across the state, providing an invaluable service for all users of these non-motorized trails.