By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is an often rigorous hiking route that covers 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, traversing several mountainous ridges through the Kern River Valley’s “backyard,” the Sequoia National Forest. The PCT, which started development almost 100 years ago and has been designated a National Scenic Trail for just over 50, is about to experience a change of direction, and the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) has set up shop here in the KRV to forge the path ahead.
First, a little history about the trail:
According to the PCTA, in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for development and protection of “a balanced system of trails to help protect and enhance the total quality of the outdoor environment, as well as to provide much needed opportunities for healthful outdoor recreation.” This eventually led to the National Trails System Act, passed by Congress in 1968. The Act “established policies and procedures for a nationwide system of trails consisting of national recreation, scenic, historic, and connecting or side trails.” The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail were designated as the nation’s first official National Scenic Trails.
The current PCTA was first chartered as the Pacific Crest Trail Conference in 1977, and the name was changed to the Pacific Crest Trail Association in 1992 to reflect the focus and volunteer structure of the new group as an individual membership organization, rather than a federation of outdoor clubs. In 1993, the PCTA signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Forest Service, Park Service and the BLM. This agreement recognizes the PCTA as the federal government’s major partner in the management and operation of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.
While the trail was declared complete, approximately 200 miles remain on private land and thus at risk of urban encroachment and impacts on resources. In some areas, the PCT runs through private land via right-of-way easements as narrow as just eight feet. Other portions of the PCT exist without easements, and work continues to secure the trail in optimal locations.
Which is where Ben Barry, Southern Sierra Regional Representative for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, and now, new Kern Valley resident, comes into the picture. Originally from Sacramento, Barry grew up near, and with a love for, the trail and its surrounding areas, spurring him to attend Humboldt State University, where he majored in Natural Resources. As part of his graduate internship requirements, he signed up to be on a trail crew with the Montana Conservation Corps, and says, “I just thought it was the most fun.”
After college graduation, Barry “bounced all over the country” working on a variety of National Scenic Trails (NST) including the Pacific Crest, Florida, and New England trails, and for the last 2 years, Barry served as Trail Manager for the Southern Region of the Appalachian NST. But now that he’s back on the PCT, working out of the USFS offices in Kernville and responsible for a 500-mile section that ranges from the Northern boundary of the Angeles National Forest to the Northern Boundary of the Yosemite National Forest, he is exactly where he wants to be. “The landscape here is pretty iconic of where I came from. It’s a dream job for me.”
As the sole Regional Representative for this massive area, Barry is the lead on everything from facilitating staff and coordinating with volunteers to working with federal partners (BLM, USFS, California and National State Parks) on projects, resource and site management. But one of the biggest projects he has on his plate these days is rerouting 38 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to newly negotiated PCT easement specially designated within the existing conservation easement that encompasses 80 percent of the Tejon Ranch, “the largest piece of private property in the United States,” says Barry.
This new PCT easement “will allow trail users to access a very narrow corridor” through the pristine preserved Tejon Ranch grounds in an area very few have ever seen or been able to experience. “This is where Congress originally intended for the trail to be, but because it’s been on private property, they couldn’t do it,” explains Barry. “We’ve been trying for the last 20 years to move it from the Mojave Desert, where it goes through a bunch of wind farms, to an actual crest. We’ve been working with the Tejon Ranch Corp and other conservation corps to make this happen. It’s been a complicated process, getting all the pieces in place. It’s a substantial reroute.” When asked exactly where the new section will end up, Barry can’t really pinpoint its precise location yet, because “we’re still figuring that out.”
The other big part of Barry’s job involves Visitor Use Management in the High Sierra region. The PCT “is a National Scenic Trail because it’s wild, remote, has outstanding viewship and there are lots of opportunities for solitude,” Barry explains. “Having more people using it decreases these opportunities. We need to manage it and find solutions.” Some of those solutions involve managing campsite proliferation and waste disposal, as well as coordinating use permits with the BLM and USFS to handle the number of hikers and ensure responsible use of the trail. “There are a lot of people who want to be recreating and using that land. We want to make sure they can still use it and get the same wild experience with others.”
Barry’s long list of projects and responsibilities will keep him busy “for the foreseeable future – the next 10 to 20 years, easily,” but luckily his wife, a nurse, has found a place at KVHD, and the couple has settled in Kernville nicely with their German Shepherd, Potato. “I like Kernville. It’s great. Everyone here has been very friendly and welcoming. Like I said, this is really a dream job for me.”