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NW B&S NEWS: Gifford Pinchot National Forest benefits from local engagement by volunteer foresters

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For the past four years, Neal Ballard has helped install cameras that capture images of animals in southwest Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

He has always loved to hike, but this volunteer work setting up wildlife cameras in remote areas for a nonprofit organization allows him to venture off established trails to “see places I never would have seen before.”

For Ballard, a retired software engineer for a health care system who lives in Vancouver, staying connected to nature and giving back are the driving forces behind his volunteerism.

“It was a chance to get involved in wildlife conservation work, which I’ve been wanting to do forever but couldn’t when I was working full time,” he says.

As a volunteer with the Cascade Forest Conservancy, Ballard, 64, is part of a growing trend of citizen scientists — members of the public who, armed with GPS devices, computer tablets, laptops and hand tools, help advocacy organizations and government agencies with projects ranging from restoring natural areas to collecting data on populations of various species and habitat restoration needs.

For the Cascade Forest Conservancy, the work is part watchdog, part partnership amid budget constraints for the U.S. Forest Service, says Matt Little, executive director of the conservancy, a conservation, education and advocacy group focused on Washington’s South Cascades between Mount Rainier and the Columbia River Gorge.

“We are the Forest Service’s helping hands out in the woods, and their eyes and ears on things,” he says. “Without citizen scientists, we and the Forest Service wouldn’t be able to accomplish all the things in the forest that are needed to keep it sustainable and wild.”

The conservancy, which is among the many organizations that turn to volunteers for help, has experienced much growth since it started five years ago.

Volunteers now take about 30 trips a year into the Gifford Pinchot forest, putting in more than 1,600 service hours, Little says.

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