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Smokejumpers Build Bridge In New Mexico

by William Kemsley-Taos News |

Hikers can now cross a wilderness 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 of the U.S. Forest Service has built in many years.

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

Now retired, they came from Oregon, Washington state, Idaho, Colorado, Santa Fe and Angel Fire from Sept. 10-15 to build a rustic bridge and position it across the Río Santa Barbara entirely by hand.

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 3 miles deep in the forest to the bridge site.

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

It took a weekend for the riders and their horses to pack in lengths of timber, wire mesh to hold rocks and stone for the abutments, bulky hand tools, rigging tackle and supplies for the smoke jumpers. It required another weekend to take out the tools and remaining supplies.

Before the project, the Forest Service bridged this section of trail with logs precariously perched upon rocks to cross the river. The logs, though, were easily washed from their perch by tumultuous runoffs of mountain snowmelt each spring.

For years, the Forest Service knew the best solution was a bridge. But one long enough to span the 40-foot-wide river was costly and never reached priority in the agency's annual budget.

The bridge project was the culmination of a summer of preparation by Craig Saum, a Carson National Forest ranger.

Saum is not just an office desk planner. Nor is he a stand-aside director. He is a grunt, one who digs into the dirtiest tasks, like gathering and hauling rocks to build the abutments at approaches to the bridge from both sides of the river.

The abutments are huge piles of rocks held together in firm chain-link wire mesh encasements.

Saum was aided by Ian Barbosa, a seasonal forest ranger who, when his summer season ends, returns home to Brazil to work in the forests down there. Derek Olinger, a student who returns to his university studies of fish and wildlife during his winters, also assisted.

A volunteer, who prefers anonymity, 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 Río 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 western fork of the Río Santa Barbara.

The six other smoke jumpers were Doug Wamsley, a retired Denver prosecutor who said it was his wife who found out about the project and signed him up; Marcos Rivera, a retired city planner and the only volunteer who lived his entire life in New Mexico; Jon Klingel, a retired biologist of the New Mexico Fish and Game Department; Tom Wilks, of Oak Harbor, Washington, who was working on his fifth-year volunteer smoke jumper project just waiting to build a bridge of this magnitude; Mike Overby, an employment agency proprietor who gathered the team together; and Jim Thompson from Sand Point, Idaho, a retired civil engineer who served as lieutenant, knowing exactly which task to lead the troops on next.

It took 13 pack trips to lug the mass of material and supplies by the horse-packer support team - which also included Kristen Dorner, Steve Percival, Henry Jimenez and Clayton Gibbard - into the Pecos Wilderness.

The Pecos Wilderness is the second-largest wilderness in New Mexico covering nearly 224,000 acres of mountainous wildlands. It was set aside as a federally designated wilderness by the 1964 Wilderness Act.

This was the second bridge built in 2017 in our local forests. But it is twice the length of the other, which was built in an agreement with the Southwest Conservation Corps in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Study Area.

By one estimate, the Forest Service saved upwards of $40,000 by volunteers building the Río Santa Barbara bridge.