Hard hats gleaming in the sun, Ros Wu of the Pagosa Ranger District field office and Brian White, Recreation and Wilderness Program manager for the San Juan National Forest, crouched beneath a towering ponderosa Pine on Sunday morning to plan their next move.
“So, safety zones, and who’s gonna get the saw?” White asked Wu as Lisa McClure, the Region 2 cross-sawing adviser, looked on. A few minutes later, the tree – about 60 feet tall and 11 inches in diameter – swiftly collapsed into a clearing, just as White and Wu had planned.
McClure, lead wilderness ranger for the Divide District of the Rio Grande National Forest and a top level sawyer, was one of seven instructors teaching an interagency course in cross-cut saws during the weekend near Junction Creek Campground as part of the annual Wilderness Ranger Academy.
A large, primitive tool, many of the cross-cut saws in use today are antiques, which require a great deal of care to preserve. McClure once took a 40-hour-course in Missoula, Mont., dedicated solely to the art of sharpening the tool, which can take up to 15 hours, she said.
Students from several states and agencies took part in the cross-saw training, camping in the area at night – battling mosquitoes during the day. Despite the long weekend, most seemed enthusiastic during the course’s final day.
“It’s very rare that we get a chance to all get together, the Wilderness Service, so I’ve really enjoyed that this weekend,” said Jeffer Winghee, a training instructor and San Isabelle National Forest wilderness manager who has been with the Forest Service since 1993.
Winghee and other instructors emphasized the importance of passing the primitive techniques involved in using cross-cut saws on to younger generations of wilderness rangers.
“All of this stuff is becoming kind of a lost art and lost skills because our world’s becoming so mechanized,” said Lead Wilderness Ranger Steve Sunday while unpacking saws from his truck.
The course involved one day of classroom instruction and two days in the field. Students were briefed on everything from wilderness ethics to safety protocols and tension and compression before they actually began felling and bucking trees.
Felling is the art of cutting down a tree using a series of precise and calculated cuts, including an initial face cut followed by an angled pie cut, and eventually the final back cut. In between the main cuts, sawyers use techniques such as gunning, where they place the saw in backward, using the teeth to gauge the direction the tree should fall based on the face cut. They also use their knowledge of tension and compression, as well as a wedge technique to swiftly remove the saw from the final cut and drop the tree in the intended direction without complication.
“There’s a lot to it,” McClure said as White and Wu held each handle of the saw, making the pie shaped cut. Felling a tree with the long, flexible saws is generally a two-person job.
Bucking involves cutting and removing trees that have fallen in the way of a trail. Wilderness trails are made about 6 feet wide at waist level – about wide enough for a pack and saddle, meaning a pack animal such as a mule or horse with a saddle, to traverse them. Wilderness rangers such as McClure still use pack animals when they do work in the field.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits motorized vehicles and mechanized tools in wilderness areas, making the age-old techniques of using pack animals and cross-cut saws important as a way for backcountry crews to remove dead and fallen trees on trails and in campgrounds without the use of motor vehicles or chain saws.
A certification to use cross-cut saws in the wilderness requires not only a firm grasp of safety procedures and the skill set needed to use the tool itself, but also a deeper understanding of the wilderness ethics that the cross-cut saw represents and upholds.
“In wilderness, speed is not the issue, it’s protecting the wild character of area,” said Anne Dal Vera, instructor at the training and lead wilderness ranger in the Columbine Pine District. “If every time we needed to do something in the wilderness we brought mechanized tools in, we would loose some of that wild character.”