The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 7, 2011

Boy Scouts start blazing trail projects

A total of 1,400 working in New River Gorge Park

GLEN JEAN — Seven thousand feet of freshly built trail now wind through the New River Gorge National Park, after less than three full days of SummitCorps 2011 — the Boys Scouts of America’s (BSA) Order of the Arrow trail work service project.

The project launched on Sunday, with approximately 202 Scouts directly building trails  and 363 volunteers in total. Each week of July, a new group of volunteers will arrive, for a total upward of 1,400 Scouts — all members of the Order of the Arrow (OA), the BSA’s national honor society. By the end of the month, the crews will have completed one of the largest youth service projects in National Park Service history.

So far, according to both the OA’s “Arrowmen” and other project coordinators, the project is running smoothly.

“I think we’ve set an incredibly high bar for our Scouts to come,” said Brandon Azoulai, an Arrowman from New York. Azoulai is serving as Youth Incident Commander for the first week, in charge of the behind-the-scenes logistics.

“We’ve just gotten a lot of work done. And the amount of fun going on out there — I think that’s really the best bar we’ve set.”

This first crew of Scouts sets in motion an elaborate plan that was months in the making, said Robin Snyder, Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services for the New River Gorge National River.

“It feels great — it’s awesome to have it happening, to have it running as smoothly as it is.”

On Wednesday morning, the Arrowmen and other volunteers were out in full force on the Kaymoor Top Trail in Fayetteville in the heat of the day, swinging axes and hoes and lining natural drains with a protective layer of rocks.

The project is a precursor to the BSA 2013 National Jamboree and the 2019 World Jamboree, when thousands of Scouts will descend on the 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean. The Reserve will also play permanent host to a high-adventure base.

“We’re really here … to literally trail-blaze the way for Scouts in the area,” explained Jonathan Ellis, National Chief of the Order of the Arrow.

“We thought we’d break the ground and be the first on the ground, and show West Virginia what we’re all about.”

Ellis described how the OA’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of service work.

“We believe that the best leadership is servant leadership,” he said. “Our goal is to be on the ground, putting our tools where our mouths are, and show the local area that we’re here for them.”

On the trail

By the end of July, those tools will have cleared an estimated 30 miles of trail and rehabilitate 12 miles — with each of the 22 trail crews chipping away at approximately 150 feet each day.

The project will save the National Park Service 10 years  of work and $1 million, projected Snyder.

“We seized the opportunity, with the Boy Scouts coming on board, to say, ‘Hey, we’d like to do this in the park,’” she said.

To design professional-quality multi-use trails, the International Mountain Biking Association helped lay out the trail course and trained the Arrowmen in techniques such as shaping a 5 percent “out-slope” grade on the trail, so that water runs off smoothly in a more natural course.

The Scouts also learned to line the drains with rocks, a process called stone pitching, so that bike traffic doesn’t form deep ruts.

The volunteers are relying on hand tools — for safety, for more intricate work and for less intrusion on the surrounding woods.

For Scouts who were injured before the project began, SummitCorps formed a special crew so that the Scouts could stay involved. The crew is working full-day shifts in Thurmond, on manual labor projects such as landscaping.

“We couldn’t stop them from coming out, because they wanted to work,” said Azoulai.

Snyder expressed a deep gratitude for the hundreds of volunteers who will pass through the project.

“They literally could be anywhere right now, and they have paid their way to come here and volunteer for the Park Service and build these trails for the community,” she said.

Arrowman Mitch Andrews of Ohio, Operations Chief for the week, explained that, in return, the OA takes its relationship with the Park Service seriously.

“The whole philosophy of the Order of the Arrow is servant leadership,” he said. “Building a partnership with the Park Service is obviously important because we going to be so close to the Park.”

“I think especially this week shows a lot of the character of the people out here. They spent the Fourth of July out here working, doing nothing but sweating in the dirt.”

Working hard, playing hard

While the crews have hit the trails hard — leaving their base at the National Guard Armory before 7 each morning — they’ve also taken the time to enjoy themselves.

On Tuesday, for example, an Arrowman from the northern portion of the trail traveled to the border between the northern and southern sections — armed with a laminated joke “treaty,” which the Arrowmen signed to ensure his “safe passage” from North to South. The Scouts even held a golden spike ceremony as the Arrowman crossed over.

Part of the enjoyment, said Robert Slapikas of Florida, is coming together as a team.

“With the Order of the Arrow’s way, you learn to work with each other and with each others’ faults and strengths, he said. “It’s a great fellowship.”

“You hear so much in the news today just about the bad things happening with youth — but then you get to come out here with the group that’s just so cheerful,” added Ellis.

 Logistics behind the scenes

To coordinate the hundreds of volunteers, the project is following the Incident Command Structure — a national operations procedure created to organize everything from wildfires emergency response to major events like Bridge Day.

Youth instructors — known as the “I-Corps” — arrived weeks in advance to train to lead the crews, and a team of volunteers also set up the communications system several weeks before the crews actually arrived. One whole work crew from Arkansas even devotes its time to sharpening tools in the “Tool Temple.”

According to Azoulai, the extensive preparation has paid off.

 “That Saturday before [the volunteers arrived], we all … kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘We don’t have anything else to do.’ Now we’re just fine-tuning it and making it perfect.”

Arrowmen youth are filling the leadership positions in the Incident Command Structure, each youth matched with a Park Service representative and BSA adult who has the same role.

“The unique thing about Order of the Arrow is you put youth in adult positions,” said Azoulai. “We like to give youth the experience to do work, and make the mistakes as well as learn from them.”

Andrews described how the send-off each morning has been one of his favorite experiences as Operations Chief.

“The morning deployment is kind of my baby,” he said. “It’s pretty satisfying to see 200-plus people coming into the parking lot and getting into 22 specific crews and getting into six buses going to three places — and it’s all going like clockwork and on time.”

The project also encourages the Arrowmen to look to other leaders for inspiration. Each day at lunch, through the “Evolution of a Leader” program, the crews learn the achievements of an anonymous leader — names to be revealed on Friday.

Connecting with the community

Mitchell Pierpont, of Michigan, said that after hearing a presentation of The Summit plans, he began to grasp the scope of the trail-building and The Summit project as a whole.

“It was incredible to see that what we’re building on this little piece of land will be something so huge,” he said. “We’ve been told a couple of times that we’re making history. It doesn’t feel like it, but I think that in a couple of years, we’ll see that it really was.”

“Once we build this, it’ll last a long time, and people will be able to enjoy this for generations.”

Brian Morris, I-Corps member from Charleston, said he believes the local area stands to benefit from the trail and the Jamboree and high-adventure site.

“It’s going to bring a lot to the local economy,” he said.

Already, said Andrews, the Arrowmen have been visiting local businesses during — and putting some thought into it.

“We try to use the small businesses,” he said. “We try to support the local economy more Ellis said that I-Corps members have gratefully reported being “treated like locals” in The SummitCorps project has already begun donating its leftover food to the homeless shelter in Beckley.

Meanwhile, the Arrowmen learned about the local culture through the “Mountain Men” program on Monday night. The program featured a local bluegrass band, residents with Native American heritage, and even a blacksmith to talk about history and traditions.

“It’s a lot different than I’m used to in Florida,” said Slapikas, describing how he was especially impressed by accounts of chopping wood for heat.

Overall, said Ellis, the Arrowmen intend to build a long-term relationship with the local area, including a permanent OA service project.

“Our goal is to be as incorporated with the local community as possible, because they’ve given so much to us,” he said. “If I could communicate anything to the people … it’s just that we’re so thrilled to be out here, and we thank them for welcoming us.”

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