Jim Beck in uniform in Weminuche Wilderness in Colorado.
At 67, Beck can still hold his own with a cross cut saw. Here he works with a Forest Service summer intern to clear a trail in the Weminuche Wilderness in southern Colorado.
Volunteer does Wilderness
Ranger Work Across the Country

Jim Beck took ‘early retirement’ in his late 50s but didn’t exactly retire
 ̶̶ ̶̶ now he’s hiking, climbing, clearing trails and taking care of wilderness and other landscapes across the country.
He’s a volunteer.

Last year Beck, a former consultant whose resume now reads “Outdoor Volunteer,” hiked 250 miles of trail in the rugged Superstition Wilderness in Arizona to locate trail signs for the Mesa Ranger District, Tonto National Forest.

“We ended up in Arizona last winter and I showed up on the Mesa district doorstep. I said ‘I’m in town, I want to volunteer and I’m highly qualified,” Beck said. He walked out that day with a uniform.  “Turns out they don’t have any staff assigned to the Superstition Wilderness.”  Beck located 34 old signs; many were subsequently replaced by the Forest Service throughout the west side of the sprawling 160,236-acre urban wilderness at the edge of Phoenix.  He also hiked virtually abandoned trails on the obscure eastside of the wilderness to provide trail condition reports to district managers, who are applying for grants for needed trail work.

This was his third volunteer project in wilderness. 

Jim first served as a wilderness ranger in the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota. This notion had caught Jim and his wife Cathy’s interest when both were working full time but taking vacations to hike, ski, climb and paddle. During a “trip of a life time” canoe venture in Boundary Waters, Beck got talking to an outfitter who said his dream job after retirement would be to volunteer for the Forest Service. “They have a cabin back in the wilderness, people go out there and stay, check on campsites, talk to people…That stuck in my head for years and years. I said, ‘I’m going to do that.’  He got in touch with the Superior National Forest that manages the wilderness; although they ended up that summer working out of their motor home instead of the now defunct cabin, the Becks did work as volunteer rangers. 

The following summer, Beck showed up at Pagosa Springs Ranger District in Colorado, and got on as a volunteer ranger in the Weminuche Wilderness on the San Juan National Forest. Beck, who has climbed all the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado, patrolled the Chicago Basin, a favorite access point for peak-bagging climbers, and also used his cross-cut sawyer skills to clear trails. 

Next project was the Superstitions.

Now the Becks are in the Florida Keys helping clear trails and clean up a nature preserve administered by The Nature Conservancy, a non-government organization that preserves critical ecosystems around the world.

The Becks have a permanent address in Alaska but live full time in a motor home, exploring areas and doing projects that appeal to their love of the outdoors. After both retired early, they sold their home in Evergreen Colorado, bought the motorhome and visited all states (49) that can be driven to.  The volunteer projects offer new travel focus.

Explaining the motivation, Beck said, “it was my desire to give something back. I have felt very privileged to have spent all these years immersed in the glory of nature and felt I should pay forward for that experience.”

Beck’s list of future options includes Teton National Park in Wyoming and Denali in Alaska. “I’m really interested in wilderness,” he said. “My plan is to continue to seek out new adventures…go from place to place and continue this as long as I can.”

“The sands are running in my hourglass,” said Beck, 67. “But I am happy to say that so far I am able to kick butt on the desk jockeys.”

He was surprised that the Superstition Wilderness, which has such a high visitor rate from the 3-million-population greater Phoenix area, has no Forest Services staff assigned. The one “wilderness ranger” was reassigned to ATV patrol. (The Tonto National Forest, adjacent to Phoenix, claims 5.8 million visitors a year and heavy recreation workload with ATVs, floaters on the Salt River, boaters and motorists, equestrians and hikers). 

So the public is assuming some of the workload in the Superstitions.  “There are volunteers at popular trailheads spending the morning talking to users going in…to keep people out of trouble. And now thanks to some of the key (volunteer) people, they have volunteer groups adopting trails. None of it is being done by paid staff.”

In the more remote eastside backcountry, Beck even found trail clearing work done by unknown parties, a surprise to the Forest Service. If no one uses a trail, the manzanita, cat claw and other thorny vegetation take over and trails become impassable.
“I still have some scars from the cat claw.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: As domestic federal budgets have declined in real dollars over the past few years, resource agencies such as the USDA Forest Service, National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) have increasingly relied on volunteers for research support, wilderness patrols and public contacts. We used to joke that the “real work” was done by seasonal employees; now much of the interesting field-oriented projects are done by volunteers. Although agencies don’t pay a salary, they often provide minimal reimbursement for expenses such as transportation, food, lodging and miscellaneous expenses. Uniforms, tools and vehicle are often supplied to support the work project. For more details, check out volunteer information on-line (https://www.volunteer.gov/ for NPS, BLM and FWS and https://www.fs.fed.us/working-with-us/volunteers  for the Forest Service).