For the past four years, Neal Ballard has helped install cameras that capture images of animals in southwest Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
He has always loved to hike, but this volunteer work setting up wildlife cameras in remote areas for a nonprofit organization allows him to venture off established trails to “see places I never would have seen before.”
For Ballard, a retired software engineer for a health care system who lives in Vancouver, staying connected to nature and giving back are the driving forces behind his volunteerism.
“It was a chance to get involved in wildlife conservation work, which I’ve been wanting to do forever but couldn’t when I was working full time,” he says.
As a volunteer with the Cascade Forest Conservancy, Ballard, 64, is part of a growing trend of citizen scientists — members of the public who, armed with GPS devices, computer tablets, laptops and hand tools, help advocacy organizations and government agencies with projects ranging from restoring natural areas to collecting data on populations of various species and habitat restoration needs.
For the Cascade Forest Conservancy, the work is part watchdog, part partnership amid budget constraints for the U.S. Forest Service, says Matt Little, executive director of the conservancy, a conservation, education and advocacy group focused on Washington’s South Cascades between Mount Rainier and the Columbia River Gorge.
“We are the Forest Service’s helping hands out in the woods, and their eyes and ears on things,” he says. “Without citizen scientists, we and the Forest Service wouldn’t be able to accomplish all the things in the forest that are needed to keep it sustainable and wild.”
The conservancy, which is among the many organizations that turn to volunteers for help, has experienced much growth since it started five years ago.
Volunteers now take about 30 trips a year into the Gifford Pinchot forest, putting in more than 1,600 service hours, Little says.
In addition to volunteering in the woods, Ballard pitches in by doing such things as database management for the conservancy. But his main interest is setting up wildlife cameras, which opened his eyes to just how vast and diverse the Gifford Pinchot forest is.
“I don’t think most people realize how much backcountry there is outside our door in Clark County,” he says.
Ballard and fellow volunteers set up the cameras in trees, record their locations via GPS, then return later to check the camera for pictures, which they download onto computers, followed by a written summary.
This year, the conservancy has been studying, in part, the distribution of martens, or weasels, to determine whether they’re impacted by logging, climate change or development. It’s also using surveys to determine whether wolves are moving back into an area known as Goat Rocks Wilderness, north of Mount Adams, says Shiloh Halsey, the conservancy’s conservation science director.
During one trip, Ballard says he and other volunteers had stopped to check a wildlife camera when a male black bear loped across a road. Another time they were checking a camera in dense forest between Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens when two mountain goats appeared on a trail.
“That was a thrill, because you don’t expect to see them in dense forests,” Ballard says. “They surprised us and we surprised them.”
Laurie Kerr has volunteered for about eight or nine years with Great Old Broads for Wilderness’ Portland-Vancouver chapter. She got involved after reading an article about the national grassroots organization.
Kerr, a 63-year-old Battle Ground resident, is involved in a variety of activities, including restoring natural areas that people have used for camping, posting no-camping signs and helping remove invasive species in the Gifford Pinchot forest.
She and other volunteers have used GPS to survey Forest Service roads based on a list provided by the government agency, identifying such things as blocked culverts that could harm fish habitat and determining any possible erosion that might be impacting streams.
The conservancy integrates those road survey results into its comments about proposed Forest Service timber sales because they often are related, Halsey says.
In addition, Kerr went through a Forest Service training to learn so-called solitude monitoring, in which volunteers document how much use trails get to reduce negative impacts on wilderness areas.
Kerr called Great Old Broads for Wilderness her “passion.”
“It’s like a tattoo on my skin,” she says. “It’s a part of me. It does a lot of things for me. It creates relationships with older women like myself, and we have a shared value system for caring for the Mother Earth. We like to camp, socialize and learn about the issues that impact wilderness all over the country.”
Kerr, who recently became the Portland-Vancouver chapter’s co-leader, says she’s excited about the opportunity to help guide the chapter. She appreciates the breadth of its involvement — from stewardship projects and creating connections between public and private landowners, to writing letters to lawmakers in support of wilderness protection.
Micky Ryan, a leader with the Great Old Broads for Wilderness Portland-Vancouver chapter, says that among the issues the 40 to 50 active chapter members have advocated for, is expansion of the Mount Hood Wilderness. Her heart, she adds, is in helping protect the Gifford Pinchot forest.
A lawyer by training, Ryan and other members are drawn to volunteer because of the organization’s combination of outdoor activities and advocacy work.
“We found our members like to do something beyond just hiking,” she says. “You hope you’re doing something that’s going to improve the environment, but I also think you’re learning a lot of skills and (learning) about larger environmental issues.”
For his part, Ballard doesn’t see an end to his involvement in helping protect and advocate for wilderness areas.
“Definitely, I’ll keep doing it,” he says. “I’ll be happy doing it 10 years from now just so long as I can still get out there.”