The cheerful, open-air-loving volunteers who have dedicated thousands of hours to giving Payson one of the best trail systems in the region, have so far put signs, trimmed brush and set out markers on 23 miles of pathways in and around town.
Several volunteers have individually donated more than 100 hours of labor to the trails system, that will eventually link trails running through town to a whole new network of trails built along cleared firebreaks of thinned trees ringing the town -- like spokes of a wagon wheel.
By the time the massive project is finished in about a decade, Payson residents and visitors will be able to jog, stroll, ride or bike from the heart of town out into the woods -- mostly along more than 50 miles of well-marked trails with a firm base that will welcome runners, bikers and birders alike.
The generations of residents likely to use those trails can thank a team of key town officials and the maybe 35 volunteers who have already added miles of trail to a once fragmented and unmarked network of haphazard paths.
All told, since Dec. 12 of 2006, the volunteers dedicated to the Payson Area Trails System (PATS) have donated at least $13,000 worth of time and equipment to the town-directed effort to develop a trails system that will not only serve residents but offer a major recreational amenity for visitors, said Mary McMullen, PATS coordinator for the town. The trails already link all areas of town, and include strolls along leafy streams and visits to archeological ruins -- including treks to some stirring vistas.
"A lot of the volunteers are retirees, but definitely not all," said McMullen of her loyal team of workers, who show up for the nearly weekly work sessions. They use a special sign-mounting machine that pounds a slot for the base of the signs in the dirt. However, although the machine does the heavy digging, the effort still needs a lot of manpower to put in place and finish off each sign with some rocks and shovel work.
"We have our workdays both during the week and on the weekends, so we can cater to people who have jobs," said McMullen. "We've had teachers with their children come out on the weekend and people who are just interested in getting out and helping the community -- whether they're retired or not. It's a very positive, hard-working group -- which is what makes this group so fun."
She said she hasn't had to coax or cajole. "I think a lot of it is just the satisfaction of knowing they're contributing to a really fantastic community project that will be around a long time and benefit everybody."
The town recently recognized two of the original boosters of the trails system who have each contributed more than 100 hours of hands-on trail work -- Ron Keller and Jane Ericson. Other volunteers will get awards in April.
The group has nearly finished signing the first 24 miles of existing trails, both in town and on Forest Service land on the outskirts of town. Next, town staff will have to map out perhaps another 25 miles of trails further out in an area of forest cleared by the Forest Service to protect the town from wildfires. The opportunity presented by this already-cleared land right on the outskirts of town was what prompted Councilor Andy Romance to begin pushing for a comprehensive trails system several years ago.
The pace of the work should slow down soon, since the bulk of the existing trails will be signed and put in shape for hikers. It will take the Forest Service a year or two to complete environmental studies once the town identifies proposed routes for additional trails in the fire break areas. After that, the town will have a major need for volunteers -- since the next phase will involve building many miles of trails from scratch rather than just signing and connecting existing trails, said McMullen.
In the meantime, the volunteers have already integrated miles of trails into the system with signs and trail maintenance, including the Round Valley, Dome, Boulders, Cypress, Monument Peak, Houston Loop and Peach Orchard trails. By the end of April, the largely volunteer crew will also have finished the American Gulch Trail.
That provides the backbone of the system, with smaller projects planned to connect the various segments. In addition, a coordinated effort to extend and connect the network is now built into the town planning process, so every new development will contribute another section.
"The beauty of the Payson Area Trails System is that once we finish one part, there will be other parts open up," said McMullen. "The in-town sections we handle differently, because they're not existing. We do have a trail in Rumsey Park ripe for volunteerism," said McMullen, envisioning a veritable empire of trails.
In fact, there's no end to the possibilities -- and to the types of volunteers, from teen groups to retirees.
The town recently hired two part-time people to work on the trails system, but until that point it all came down to McMullen and the volunteers.
"When you think of all the things the volunteers have accomplished, it's just huge."
Payson Area Trails System
Purpose: To build and maintain a linked network of 50 miles of hiking, biking and riding trails through and around Payson, to benefit both residents and visitors.
Contact: Mary McMullen, Town of Payson: (928) 474-5242, ext. 358
Projects: In less than two years, about 35 volunteers have put up signs and done maintenance work on 25 miles of trails, to create the backbone of a comprehensive trails system. In coming years, volunteers will help add another 25 miles of trails surrounding Payson.