CLIFTY WILDERNESS — The federal stimulus package is at work in some of Kentucky's most rugged back country.
It's hard, sometimes dangerous work. But in Menifee County, where one of every five is out of work, a temporary job making $15.50 an hour clearing ice-storm debris from trails is a blessing.
Darrell Hess, who with his general contractor partner Leonard Brown hired the other three men in the crew, gives the rundown.
There is Bill Peck, who usually works in construction, then got a factory job, then got laid off. There is Walter Centers, who worked off and on for Hess for years, then left for a regular job a year ago — and was laid off. There is Dave Holdorff, who owns a welding business, but hasn't had enough work lately to keep the shop lights on.
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Hess and Brown do all sorts of work: some logging, excavating, building fences, a little farming.
But, with the economy like it is, all those things had been slow.
"I'll be honest with you," Hess said. "I was glad to hear about this because I didn't know where my next job was going to come from."
The men were working Wednesday on Osborne Bend Trail, known to local horse riders at Powderhouse Trail, in the Clifty Wilderness. The 13,000-acre wilderness is part of the Red River Gorge in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
The Daniel Boone was one of the first national forests to get some of the $1.15 billion in stimulus money being funneled through the Forest Service. The Boone forest's portion was $550,000. The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Western Kentucky, where damage from the January ice storm was more severe, got $3 million.
The Daniel Boone hired Swift & Staley, a Western Kentucky contractor that already had been approved to do work in Land Between the Lakes, and that company hired local subcontractors in Eastern Kentucky.
Five crews totaling two dozen people are clearing trails and roads in the gorge and other parts of Daniel Boone's Cumberland Ranger District.
Two crews with a total of eight people are clearing damage from a February wind storm from the Redbird Crest Trail in the Boone's Redbird Ranger District.
Most of the crews are using chain saws or whatever power equipment they need.
But because of rules governing a nationally designated wilderness, no motorized vehicles or tools may be used to clear trails that cross the Clifty.
You might hear them work before you see them, but you would have to listen carefully for the whinnying of a horse or the soft rasping of a cross-cut saw.
The men pack their tools, their lunch and themselves on four horses and a mule. They use cross-cut and bow saws and axes to clear trees and limbs that had been blocking trails since late January.
The work can be back-breaking — sawing through a thick red oak trunk quickly teaches why a 6-foot cross-cut saw is also called a "misery whip." But the men are all from Menifee County. Although they all needed the work, Hess said, more than just money is involved.
All the men had grown up running up and down the steep hills that now are the Clifty. They all ride horses on the trails, even when they aren't coming in to work.
And there's the larger economic picture. Hess's father runs a horse camp, and already people are calling from distant places, trying to make summer plans and wondering if the trails will be open.
"This part of the forest holds a great interest for tourists and for our local merchants and our community because a lot of people come to visit this area," he said. "This is an important project to a lot of people."
Standing on a ridge in the thick forest on Wednesday, when an overcast sky was keeping the men cool and the horses frisky, Hess also noted the advantage of working in a place where most people come to get away from it all.
"It's the most beautiful office I ever set in," he said.