Book Review

Lightly on the Land
The SCA Trail-Building and Maintenance Manual
The Student Conservation Association, 1996
The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA 98134


The art of trail building and maintenance has traditionally been passed from generation to generation through hands-on experience. The best crib-walls, waterbars and treadway are invariably those that were built by the old masters or those lucky enough to have learned from them. The recent publication, Lightly on the Land (The Mountaineers, 1996) is not intended to supplant the education received through sweat, callouses and aching muscles. It should, however, take its place alongside the Pulaski, fire rake and crosscut saw as an indispensable tool for those who labor to build and maintain footpaths.

In this country the defacto standard for footpath construction has been the incredible work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Disbanded at the advent of World War II, the breadth of backcountry skills and primitive methods that were embodied in the CCC were in danger of being lost to the ages. In 1955, recognizing the problem, Elizabeth Cushman Titus wrote a dissertation proposing the creation of a "Student Conservation Corps" to be modeled on the CCC. The Student Conservation Association was formed in 1957 and in the 40 years since has helped to conserve the traditional methods of trail construction and maintenance through its various programs of volunteer work and instruction.

Lightly on the Land is a compilation of the information and instruction that is normally taught during a week-long SCA training workshop. It was written by Robert Birkby, an SCA leader and trainer whose other books include the most recent editions of the Boy Scout Handbook. Mr. Birkby's writing style is concise and informative. Although the volume is relatively small (267 pages) he manages to cover nearly the entire gamut of trail work (from design and layout to revegetation and reclaimation) with sufficient detail to inform even the wisest of old trail-hands. Extensive treatment is given to rock and timber building methods, trail drainage and maintenance issues, felling and bucking, and Griphoist rigging. Crew leaders will learn how to plan and lead a purposeful and productive work trip. Even the most basic skills such as tool use and care, crew safety, and knot-tying are discussed in individual chapters. Mr. Birkby includes necessary detail (charts are included for determing rigging loads, designing puncheon for specific trail uses, and determining contour intervals) but avoids getting bogged down in subjects too difficult for this format (parties interested in sharpening crosscut saws are referred to an appropriate Forest Service publication).

Illustrations and line drawings are used liberally throughout the text and are as clear and informative as the text they accompany. Construction techniques are clarified by diagrams of design and joinery. Rigging setups are drawn to emphasize stability and safety. Overseers, in particular, will find the rock waterbar diagrams extremely helpful.

In addition to the profuse graphic accompaniments, Mr. Birkby has illustrated his text by scattering the margins and chapter headings with assorted trail wisdom and aphorisms. Dollie Chapman, a High Sierra trail builder, advises "Skidding rocks is better than rolling them. Rolling is better than lifting. Lifting sucks." The 1913 edition of Vacation Camping for Girls recommends "Don't cut your foot with your axe. It will not add to the pleasures of camp life."

Lightly on the Land is not encyclopedic in its approach to trail work. Some issues are covered in greater detail than others. Individuals interested in repair and rehabilitation of hand tools would need to supplement this text with more specific reading. Overseers that typically work by themselves or with a friend or two would have little use for the chapters on leadership and crew organization. The volume is, however, an excellent compendium of trail techniques and is highly recommended as both a source of valuable information and continuing inspiration.

Kerry Snow
SNP Central District Trails Manager