Trail Volunteerism

I continue to be amazed at the volunteer trail efforts I have seen firsthand, or read about all across the world. This recent post (related), stumbling upon Trails Foundation, and a slew of groups in the southeast (like the many branches of  SORBA), made me want to volunteer some of my time to finally write down some of my thoughts on volunteerism.

My first thoughts on volunteerism came to me because I noticed some trail repairs and a reroute that was really nice. I wanted know who did it and how. When I simultaneously found out it was SDMBA and I too could get involved, I did just that. I got the trail bug after my first volunteer event. I didn’t think much of volunteerism then, I just volunteered because I liked it and wanted to relive the satisfaction of trail building (and activism). My old boss from Bellfree Contractors liked trail work so much he bought the historic trail building company to build trails for a living. He too began as a volunteer, but in his case it was CORBA as mentioned in the Ken Burton trail article above. I’m sure our stories are not unique. Not much has changed in my case since then, but my thoughts on what volunteerism is and what it means to me have evolved.

The opportunities to volunteer are as endless as job opportunities, or perhaps even greater. Crowd-sourced and open source projects are plentiful, and have built many great things throughout the world, and similarly trail volunteerism is everywhere. The reasons for volunteerism are as varied as the reasons why people land a job for income, though the latter is sometimes more out of necessity than choice (or first choices anyway).

I began my paid trail work ventures after several years of volunteering. I exist at a trail fork. I get paid to do many trail related tasks from planning to building, and have done the same as a volunteer. Blessings and curses have befallen me on both sides, and sometimes being in the middle is hard ground to cover. I have worked for private trail contractors, lived off the meager conservation stipends of AmeriCorps and the SCA, and I have worked for and volunteered for trail organizations. Sometimes the two cross paths without issue and there’s nothing overly impressive accomplished. Other times the synergy and stigmergy are beyond words, and the same could be said for the times when conflicts and controversies from funding to bidding to trail design and build standards rear their ugly heads. We are, after all, talking about something that is partly artistic in nature (and that’s a pun, if not irony). The relationships between paid and unpaid trail ventures can be neat and clean, or really messy, both a little much for a singular blog post. In the end, I can’t say enough about the good that has come as a result of the efforts of all those involved (paid and unpaid) in everything from trail planning and fund raising to construction and maintenance. Sometimes there are pains, heartaches, and mistakes that most end users could never fathom, and that’s a good thing if peace, solitude, and worry-free recreation is the ultimate end.

Professional/paid trail builders and volunteer trail builders can be be allies, adversaries, and sometimes both simultaneously. Some tasks are beyond the scope of volunteers depending on what has to be done, how much has to be done, and how fast. Some technical and time-consuming projects are beyond the scope of volunteers, or similarly beyond the scope of professionals because they don’t have the time, patience, or funding to allow them that luxury. Either way, sometimes there are hard feelings from both sides. It could be the result of regulation or credentialism and flippancy, or the nerve to take money or ask for no money. One gets paid to do something others do for free. There are also times when feelings of gratitude come from both “sides” as they help each other along the way. Quite often this is the case when money and/or volunteer numbers are tight, or the task is too big or not ideal for either party to do alone.

Paid “work” could be expanded or mirrored to unpaid “work” for almost any task humans do, from open-source computer projects, to website management, to car repairs, to home improvements, and even haircuts and rides to the grocery store or airport… Some things we could never ask family or friends to do for money, or strangers for that matter. To paraphrase David Graeber, could you imagine asking someone for money if they asked for directions, help fixing a flat tire, holding a door, passing salt, borrowing a phone, or even asking for a match to light a cigarette? While those aren’t great volunteerism examples, they are altruistic at their core. While it is still very taboo to use this word, David Graber calls this general sociability “baseline communism.” By that he means the glue of society or “any human relationship” is based on the communist mantra “of ‘from each [giving] according to their abilities, to each [receiving] according to their needs.’ ” According to Graeber, “baseline communism might be considered the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.”

Am I equating volunteerism to “communism” like the troglodyte Glen Beck did several years ago? Not exactly, but close. I’m “not a afraid of bugaboos” (Voltairine de Cleyre). I’m not referring to the political economy of State Communism as much as the baseline communism of from each/to each. I don’t mean to conflate the terms. Volunteerism is more than just doing things for free. I think it is framed as a money/no money situation because that is the paradigm much of the world runs on. However, the world certainly would not run (the same) if there were no volunteerism at all, not to mention sociality. We could just call volunteerism Mutual Aid, but whether there is reciprocity or how we define that reciprocity is debatable. At one time the human world certainly ran with no money, and it has never ran on barter, but most animals would not exist or persist without mutual aid. But I digress, I don’t mean to equate volunteerism with the voluntary actions of the somatic nervous system or state regulated oppression, but the former is indeed what it is.

Volunteerism is a self-guided selflessness to do or build something for others, which may or may not include the volunteer’s needs or wants, including reciprocity in the form of money or other goods…it is indeed “to each and from each” without debt except perhaps smiles and satisfaction. Some debts may be exchanged, but not necessarily tallied. In truth, most societies are mixed economies. Pure capitalism and socialism don’t exist, and no society has ever operated strictly on the from each/to each mantra, but society, or civil society will not exist without it because from each/to each “is the foundation of all human sociability.” We share, and thankfully we often ask for nothing in return, including money, information, or some debt we ask the benefactor to repay. We all owe some debt/s to certain people or society as whole, not in the form of money, but in the form of being good to each other and returning “favors” because we want to get good from each other (and avoid being assholes…until some ass cuts us off or blocks us from merging on the freeway or…).

The above isn’t to say that money is a bad medium of exchange, but sometimes it is, even for building trails. Maybe “bad” is the wrong word, but trail costs can become “complicated” by volunteerism because it distorts markets, but not in the same way governments distort them with captivity, ratcheting, concentration, insulation, and several monopolies. I’m not against volunteerism, nor markets that I’d prefer to see freed. However, sometimes volunteerism plays a role in those distortions or is caught up in that inescapable market matrix, free or not. Trail contractors and even some state and federal employees can’t compete with volunteers, nor in many cases do they (or do they try to), but volunteerism (and interns) can reduce the need for paid trail workers and change costs if contractors and parks can leverage volunteers. Further complicating matters is the fact that some organizations might have special leverage or protectionism with land mangers that circumvent the biding processes, or use cheap conservation corps labor like the SCA or AmeriCorps to lower the need for volunteers and/or professional services, or lower bids beyond the reach of professionals. I’m not going to condone these issues or necessarily get into the weeds of the bigger political economy picture here. I’ll just say that the only thing the so-called free market provides trail contractors is the fact that they have to compete with other contractors in the same distorted market and volunteer pickle. It’s a level playing field to some degree, but sometimes there’s a thumb on the scale.

Beyond the sticky economics, all this volunteer talk can’t ignore biology. As Hamilton’s Rule states: c<b*r: the (c)ost to the altruist is less than the (b)enefit to the recipient multiplied by the coefficient of (r)elatedness. Genetic relatedness increases altruism and fitness, and it decreases as that relationship decreases. In other words, people are more likely to volunteer for things they like or feel affinity for, whether that is family or what we perceive to be family like a similar trail user group. It’s not often that you will find hiking-only mindsets volunteering for mountain bike only trails or vice versa unless for some reason there is some perceived benefit or tit for tat reciprocity involved.

There are four ways biota have relationships, and they can be framed in a +/- game theory manor to explain human action:

  1. commensalism– one organism benefits/the other does not benefit +/0
  2. mutualism– both organisms benefit +/+
  3. parasitism– one organism benefits/the other is harmed or pays +/-
  4. altruism– a form of the above three, but usually framed as a type of parasitism +/-, though this isn’t necessarily true if they are “paid” in endorphins and oxytocin

Commensalism and mutualism are “cooperation,” and altruism might be equated to “charity.” Just how we justify or explain altruism depends on how the ethical premise is framed. I think volunteerism volleys between the three on a case-by-case basis, but commensalism is probably rare. Regardless, trail building is indeed a biological success story, and it’s interesting to consider the “moral molecule” (oxytocin) as a driving factor. I’m not sure its necessary to explain all human actions in a biological success framework. Regardless, like any volunteer venture, or paid venture for that matter, trails are often paved with good intentions that manifest from good actions to form an altruistic baseline that I can only hope humanity will continue to travel. Sometimes the journey is smooth, sometimes rocky, sometimes the climb is hard, and other times we travel the path of trail building and planning with great exuberance.

There are certainly some trail tasks that take great skill, craft, or engineering. Sometimes they take machines as well, depending on how much dirt and rock needs to be moved, or how many hands and how much time (or morale) is a concern. Whether these tasks require money or not depends on the circumstances (and how volunteers can help). Trail building also requires knowledge of course, but like many things in this day and age, knowledge is free/open for all if they know where to look, or what questions to ask to find the answers they need. People can learn new skills, overcome technical obstacles, and practice the art of trail building without having to enter some secret society, get a degree, or paying a fee in many instances. One of the reasons I built this site is to house resources, in the form of information, for people (including my absent-minded self) to use and share, and share alike…a creative commons. Granted, trail building is not brain surgery, and most of it is very simple once the basic “rules” and best practices are known. Of course sometimes this knowledge is better practiced with a mentor in the field, which may or may not involve a fee.

Beyond knowledge or know-how, I think the hardest part of trail building is on the advocacy end, or getting the permission to add, move, or remove trails. Some people are indeed better at advocacy than others. Some are better artists or scientists than others, but the beauty of mutual aid and crowd sourcing is that we can reach out and help each other where we need to, or with what we can best offer to bring to the table…professionals, volunteers, and professional volunteers alike. In this regard trail building is a secret society of sorts, or “distinct” at any rate. Many successful trail ventures birth, or are the result of, trail societies or communities where crowd sourcing and cooperation are the lifeblood of good synergistic and stigmergic trail outcomes and organizations. Long live long trails, cooperation, altruism, and mutual aid!

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