Molly Johnson had been hiking in the Deschutes National Forest for years, but in 2013, she started to notice a disturbing trend. Trash and dog poop had cluttered the once-pristine trails and the weekend hikes no longer provided a respite from her job as a physical therapist.

“I’m not coming back to work on Monday refreshed,” Johnson recalled thinking.

The following year, she decided to do something about it. She and two friends founded Friends of the Central Cascades Wilderness, a nonprofit that does a variety of stewardship work on forestland. Some of it involves cleaning up trash and repairing trail signs, but the group’s more-than-50 members also collect data on trail use, creating information that helps the U.S. Forest Service put additional resources on trails that need them most.

“I’ve always been drawn toward research,” Johnson said. “I like to collect data.”

Johnson isn’t alone. The 1.8 million-acre Deschutes National Forest relies on a small army of volunteers with a scientific bent. With a wide range of scientific experience, these volunteers help measure groundwater totals for watershed restoration projects, track populations of carnivores and manage plenty of other projects in the forest.

“It doesn’t necessarily sound like fun, but if you care about the trails and care about the forest, it’s meaningful work,” Johnson said.

Stacey Cochran, community engagement director for Discover Your Forest, a nonprofit partner for the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, said 2,092 volunteers worked 68,281 hours in the two forests combined in 2016. While she said the number of volunteers dropped slightly from 2015, when the Deschutes ranked second in the nation for volunteering among national forests, the number of hours worked rose significantly.

“We exceeded our record year by more than 8,000 hours,” Cochran said.

As the U.S. Forest Service’s base of volunteers has grown, Cochran said citizen science programs have increasingly become a priority.

Tom Walker, district fisheries biologist for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District, said he’s worked with volunteers in the past, but last summer was the first time he brought on volunteers for projects with a citizen science component.

Walker said the work his four volunteers did — which included raising awareness about invasive plant species and monitoring populations of blue-green algae in lakes and rivers — is work that paid forest service staffers used to do. But budget constraints forced Walker to trim staff, and now volunteer scientists are his best bet for continuing the work. He said the volunteers, who each contributed between one and eight weeks of work for the forest, were helpful and easy to work with.

“If I had money, I’d hire them,” Walker said.

As for the citizen scientists, they receive a chance to apply existing passions and develop new ones.

Joanne Richter, a retired watershed scientist living in Central Oregon, said she has been volunteering in the Deschutes National Forest for years. Most recently, Richter has been monitoring groundwater levels near Whychus Creek as part of the ongoing restoration effort. Richter said it was an opportunity to apply her interest in rivers to a new project.

“I was excited to see a stream that’s been allowed to recover,” she said.

For Todd West, program coordinator with the Cascades Carnivore Project, a nonprofit that researches carnivores in Oregon and Washington, volunteering was an opportunity to pursue a new interest after a career as a software engineer.

“I was interested in science; I was interested in biology,” he said.

West said many of the animals being studied, including wolverines and pine martens, can be a challenge to monitor directly.

West and other Central Oregon volunteers examine the predators in a variety of noninvasive ways, from studying scat to setting up cameras in their habitat. The goal, West said, is to provide the Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife with enough information to make informed decisions about habitat and species management.

The Cascades Carnivore Project monitors a variety of species in the Deschutes National Forest, including a small population of Sierra Nevada Red Foxes, an endangered species native to California and Oregon. West said he’s trying to learn more about the size of the Oregon population, a project that requires volunteers to study tracks, change out cameras and more. In 2015, the species was added to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s conservation plan, in part due to the work of West and other volunteers.

While West said he hadn’t done any work with carnivores before volunteering with the organization, he said it was an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the lands he has hiked and skied on.

“It’s a chance for people to learn,” West said.

—Reporter: 541-617-7818,