Tom Kroll & newly repaired sign which involved removing the signs from the rotted posts; installing & painting new posts; reattaching the signs. The Kroll’s helped build the jack fence in the background around the campground along with the FS -Madison District recreation and fire crews in 2016. PHOTO COURTESY TOM KROLL

For the love of the forest

Mary and Tom Kroll complete tenth summer as USFS volunteers

If you’re grateful for the beauty and solitude easily found in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, thank the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the agency’s summer volunteers. That the forest is remote yet easily reachable is due to carefully maintained roads and readable signs. After all, with no cell service in the wild Gravelly Range, safe roads and good signs are essential!

USFS volunteers like Mary and Tom Kroll of Long Prairie, Minn., devote their summers to living in the forest and keeping it safe and enjoyable for visitors. This involves a range of tasks that includes repairing signs and maintaining the USFS 1930s-era cabins that are available to the public for rent (which also means cleaning the outhouses). From their base at Vigilante Station, they also check on trails, mend fences and keep a look-out for noxious weeds.

“It is a privilege for us to be able to volunteer at Vigilante Station in the beautiful Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest,” said Tom, age 70. “Since we started in 2011, we have only missed one summer.” Both Tom and Mary, age 63, are certified foresters.

What’s it like to be off the grid for weeks? “Living without internet or cell service is not the worst thing,” replied Tom, although the station has a landline for use when necessary. He told the story of a young mother with two kids who rented a cabin at Vigilante and left a note in the guest book that read: “Oh my gosh, kids off the grid for first time. Watching them change before my eyes.”

The Krolls’ summer home, Vigilante, has been a ranger station, a research station, and a Civilian Conservation Corps camp during the Great Depression. Because it’s easily accessed, visitors often stop to ask for directions or help.

“We answer questions almost daily,” Tom said. “We’ve had a motorist run out of gas. We helped two German cyclists who thought they were taking a short-cut over the Gravelly Range and ran out of water.”

Grizzly bears? Kroll said that during their 10 summers in Beaverhead-Deerlodge, they’ve never seen a griz. “We carry bear spray on the trails and talk loudly,” he says. “We know they’re there.” The couple makes a point of promoting bear-awareness among the forest’s visitors.

With their summer assignment coming to a close, the Krolls are heading back home to Minnesota. “We would like to return next summer, and stay our usual three to five weeks,” Tom said.

“The volunteer job gives us a sense of belonging and purpose. We get satisfaction from working around the campgrounds, interacting with campers and the USFS trail crew. The Forest Service’s Madison District recreation staff has always been helpful in providing us projects and guidance and gracious in accepting our limitations. We are grateful for the opportunity and hope others will also find joy and purpose in volunteering.”

Joel Sather, Natural Resources Specialist for the Madison Ranger District, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said “the Krolls are awesome. Not enough ‘thanks’ out there for them."

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