Under a white, wintry sky, nearly two-dozen union members volunteered to rebuild a 100-foot wooden bridge on a public trail in the Black Hills.
“When you’ve got skilled workers with the right tools, the work goes quick,” says Dana Garry, who manages the 109-mile Mickelson Trail for South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks. In two days, the volunteers rebuilt abutments and replaced the bridge surface and railing. “It was just amazing,” she said. “These volunteers fill an important need.”
The volunteer effort was put together by a program called Boots on the Ground by the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA), a national nonprofit organization of union members who share a love of hunting, fishing and the outdoors. This year, the USA held nine major volunteer efforts from Illinois and Ohio, where union members built wild boar traps and taught children with autism to fish, respectively, to Southern California where volunteers helped renew the Bolsa Chica wetlands.
“Boots on the Ground is a great way for union members to get involved locally,” says USA’s Executive Director Fred Myers. “We do all kinds of stuff. We mentor kids. We conserve habitat. We improve public access. It’s all about making America a better place to pass on to our children.”
This year, Boots on the Ground partnered with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Nashville Building and Construction Trades Council to educate middle- and high-school kids about how to have fun—safely—outdoors.
“The hardest part for something like this is never the money,” says Williamson County wildlife officer Joe Fortner. “It’s finding skilled volunteers.”
Back in South Dakota, when Garry began to consider the daunting task of rebuilding 65 bridges on the trail, which had been a railroad grade, the labor seemed like the biggest hurdle. The price tag for the work will come to about $2 million for the materials alone. How would she get the work done? Rebuilding a trestle bridge isn’t a job for just anyone.
“I actually heard about Boots on the Ground through the Pierre office,” says Garry, referring to her department’s central office in the state Capitol. “I got in touch with them, and it seemed like a good fit.”
The volunteers—including several engineers, as well as members from Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1250, Sheet Metal Workers (SMWIA) Local 10, Plumbers and Pipe Fitters (UA) Local 192 and Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 49—came out on a brisk and bright November day. The next day it snowed hard.
Garry laughed, remembering the weather. “It was a wonderful experience. We really had a great time. They did a ton of work,” she said.
Still, Garry has a long list of work left to do—63 of the 65 bridges. She hopes to corral enough volunteers to do three more this summer. “So far, we’ve been lucky. We’ll see,” she said.