SIU trio helps create trails to improve access to Tahoe National Forest

Paul Hart, trails manager for the Tahoe National Forest, and an alumnus of SIU, mentored two SIU students, Kyle Griffey and Austin Krelo, this summer and taught them how to build trails in the rugged terrain. (Photos provided)

Paul Hart, Kyle Griffey and Austin Krelo worked side by side for hours and hours on the rough mountainous terrain, creating trails where there were none, enhancing recreational opportunities and promoting economic growth in the region surrounding the historic gold mining towns of the Lost Sierra. The two Southern Illinois University Carbondale students and one graduate had one goal in mind – to make more of the beautiful Tahoe National Forest accessible for people to enjoy via motorized or non-motorized vehicles as well as by hiking or on horseback.

The nearest town, Nevada City, California, lies nearly 100 miles away by road or 60 miles as the crow flies. The Tahoe National Forest encompasses some 800,000 acres of green space, and Hart serves as its trails manager, overseeing the maintenance of some 550 miles of trails and construction of new trails.

It’s a dream career for Hart, who earned his bachelor’s degree in outdoor recreation leadership from SIU in 2007 and credits the university with helping pave his pathway to success. And he’s happy to mentor other Salukis as they prepare to launch their careers; after all, Salukis helping Salukis is an SIU tradition, he said.

Incredible experience

Griffey and Krelo said working throughout the summer with Hart was an extraordinary learning experience and that their educational experience at SIU laid an excellent foundation in them for the big tasks they would undertake with Hart.

Griffey, of Tampa, Florida, learned to use a wide array of equipment while working on the trails.

“If people could only see the look on my face right now,” Griffey, of Tampa, Florida, said, beaming. “I have loved the experience. I’ve learned how to ride a motorcycle, use a chainsaw properly, move rocks with a jackhammer, create a section of trail from start to finish using different tools and work with volunteer partners and other groups and organizers. It’s been amazing. We’ve worked on a number of projects at different stages in the making of the trail and got to see how it all formed and how it all came together and how all the hard work paid off. And I’ve gotten to use a lot of different types of equipment.”

He was drawn to SIU because of its strong outdoor recreation and management program and for aviation, because aviation and flight, along with building and flying model planes, are hobbies. When he began doing basic trail building activities, he discovered that he really enjoyed it. He jumped at the chance to work with Hart when he heard about the opportunity from Tina Colson, senior lecturer in recreation professions.

Krelo, a forest resources management major from Vienna, Illinois, said he also had “definitely gotten a lot of new experiences and got to get my hands dirty” working alongside Hart. That included learning to operate an excavator, a clay compactor and pumps to move water from the river to the trails. 

Krelo learned proper chainsaw techniques as he and Griffey earned their dirt bike and chainsaw certifications under Hart’s tutelage.

But Griffey and Krelo, who have both earned their dirt bike and chainsaw certifications while laboring in California, said what they gained goes far beyond knowledge of how to operate machinery, ride cycles and consolidate community partnerships. They said they’ve been inspired by Hart’s success and by the opportunities he’s acquainted them with.

SIU paved the way to success

“It’s been really neat having Paul as a boss,” Krelo said. “We’re both from Southern Illinois and seeing him in his element and knowing we came from the same area and that he’s succeeding and is making such a difference out here after all of the hard work he’s put in since graduating from SIU is something else. He’s pretty much shredding it now! And really worked hard with us, pushing us, teaching us, and we appreciate how much he’s helped us and what we’ve learned.”

Hart has been winning awards – professionally and on his motorcycle – since his days at SIU. 

Beginning his career in the Florida Everglades, he has also worked at the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the Coconino National Forest, the Ocala National Forest and Rend Lake.

Hart, who also holds a master’s degree in natural resources management from Slippery Rock University, won the SIU Recreation Professions Rising Star award in 2017.

He’s built hundreds of miles of new trails and managed 1,000 miles of existing trails. They are a serious business to him for many reasons. One is that he still races motorcycles, now in the desert dirt bike racing series and is currently ranked third in the country in the professional series.

Making trails count

Hart believes trails should be shared by all users – including cyclists, ATV drivers and motorcycle riders as well as hikers, runners and people on horseback.

“There’s so much beauty out there; we want everyone to be able to enjoy it,” Hart said. They work with the land, envisioning trails through the steep, rocky terrain and the thick woods in sustainable, forest-friendly and visionary pathways.

Griffey and Krelo, along with Hart, worked hard throughout the summer to create new trails to allow more users to access the Tahoe National Forest and they say SIU laid the groundwork for their efforts.

But he’s quick to add that building the trails to provide access is difficult, time-consuming work, and he and the others, including his fellow Salukis, are up to the challenge. He leverages grants to obtain additional funding, including stipends for Krelo and for Griffey, who was there completing a required 600-hour internship for his outdoor recreation and management degree. Indeed, Hart secures some $600,000 in grants annually.

Griffey is still interested in a career in land management but said working with Hart has definitely “opened my eyes to what opportunities are available.” 

Krelo, who will graduate in December, said his goal is to find a job where he can work with his hands, ideally with the forest service, and after his time with Hart, he can definitely see himself in a role that involves trails and fire service. He clearly remembers coming into the Tahoe area and thinking, “It’s so beautiful here.”

This isn’t the first time a Saluki has traveled to the Tahoe National Forest for the Paul Hart internship experience. Nathan Alcorn, a 2017 alumnus and outdoor recreation major from Galesburg, Illinois, served his internship there as well. Alcorn still lives in California, working for the Fire Safe Council, and he and Hart remain friends.

“I always have an open invitation for SIU interns to come out and work with me,” Hart said. “SIU had a big impact on me and my life, and I am happy to help other Salukis any way I can.”

Hart gives back in other ways as well. Any time he gets back to Southern Illinois, he takes the opportunity to come to campus to talk to outdoor recreation and management classes, Colson said.

“It is so beneficial to have someone as successful and knowledgeable as Paul, who gives freely of his time to assist our students,” said Colson.

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