Judy Mitchell, shown with her llama, Chief, near Eugene, is a retired U.S. Forest Service worker who was named the top volunteer in the nation for the work she does in Oregon's Three Sisters Wilderness. She was a Catholic nun for a decade, and later had a long career with the Forest Service in wilderness management. - AP

Wilderness worshipper

EUGENE — Wouldn't you like to meet a 66-year-old former nun who spends her days drawing a crosscut saw over downed trees — sans pay — so people half her age can have access to trails in the Three Sisters Wilderness?

And what if this woman has such great veins that the blood bank harvests her platelets every six to eight weeks as if she were some super-fit 20-year-old?

And what if she explains her motivation by saying: "I don't have any money, so I can't really give money to anybody. I can give my blood, and I can give my time."

U.S. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell wants to meet such a woman. In fact, she has invited Eugene resident Judy Mitchell to Washington next month to crown her with the top-volunteer-in-the-whole-national-forest accolade called the "Chief's Award."

People who meet Mitchell say she is remarkable not for the good she has done in the past — she doesn't tell people about that — but for what she does day-in, day-out during what's supposed to be her retirement.

"She's not a person of a lot of words. They can see it in her work. They can see it when they're with her," said Rhonda Levine, Mitchell's partner of 27 years.

Whatever Mitchell does, she tends to give it her all. As a young woman, she chose the religious life and spent a decade as a Roman Catholic nun.

Even after Mitchell decided the convent wasn't for her, she remained another 15 years with the church, serving as an educational director.

At mid-career, Mitchell made the switch from cathedral to cathedral forest. She went to work for the U.S. Forest Service as the wilderness manager in the Willamette National Forest.

She threw herself into the job, getting llamas to use as pack animals as she traveled deep into the Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Three Sisters wildernesses.

She led work parties to clean campsites, educated recreationists and help maintain more than 3,000 miles of trail.

The latter work required annual hikes to clear trees blown down in winter storms. Engines of any kind are forbidden in the federal wilderness, so tree-clearing crews must use hand saws on smaller specimens and crosscut saws on downed trees as much as 2- or 3-feet thick.

"She can work a saw and work a trail with the best of them," said Gary Guttormsen, a Springfield resident and forest volunteer.

Mitchell loves the forest. You can see it in her gold, tree-shaped earrings and in the surplus Forest Service van she drives.

She will travel to a trail-clearing project the night before and watch how the sky fades to black and listen to stillness and then to an owl's call.

"So quiet," Mitchell said.

"Her soul is out there, I think," Levine said. "It's not anywhere in the town or city. It's out in the woods."

After 18 years with the Forest Service, Mitchell retired and started working for free at the same place at just about the same intensity.

The Forest Service provided her with a desk, phone and computer at its offices in the old federal building in downtown Eugene.

Mitchell set to building her own conservation army dedicated to access, education and orderliness in the Willamette and Deschutes national forests.

Mitchell enticed early retiring baby boomers with health and time on their hands to join her on the trail.

They're the kind of people who "bicycle across the world and then hike another continent or something," Mitchell said.

The job takes her to the office nearly full time in the spring. Through the summer, she's organizing work parties into the wilderness or she's out there herself.

Winter might seem like a good time for a break, but it's not. That's when Mitchell gets ready for the three-day volunteer training campout in May and updates the volunteer database. This winter she hopes to get a nonprofit High Cascades Forest Volunteer group incorporated with a Web site set up to show volunteers which trails are clear and which need work.

"She's a hard, hard worker," said Doris Tai, Willamette forest recreation staff officer. "You're not going to find anybody who's a harder worker than Judy Mitchell."

To volunteers, Mitchell is a real pro. Her volunteer training is interesting and efficient, they say. The work assignments run smoothly.

"She's the one that gets everything organized," said Paul Hanson, former KUGN news director and current volunteer.

So, again, why does she do this — not the out-in-the-woods fun work — but the fussy, organizational office work even though she isn't paid a nickel?

"It makes me feel good when things work out," she said.

An alternative theory:

"This person is like a saint," Forest Service spokeswoman Judy McHugh said. "Oh, but she's grumpy sometimes; maybe that knocks her down a peg."

Mitchell turbocharges her volunteer corps by enlisting whole groups — together — in the cause: Besides random baby boomers, there are horsemen, mountain bike riders, backpackers, llama associations and cross-country skiers.

"She's opened it up and seen the possibilities of bringing all these groups together," Guttormsen said.

They all attend — about 100 at a time — the May training, where they take courses in compass reading, survival skills and volunteer duties.

The groups don't necessarily agree about who should use the wilderness and how.

At one training, a horseman got hot under the collar when a presenting botanist began talking about how horses can bring invasive species of plants into the wilderness if owners aren't careful about what they feed the horses.

The man spoke harshly. Onlookers fidgeted.

But in these situations, Mitchell can oil the waters.

"She'd stand up. She'd tell a joke. She had the ability to calm people down a bit," Guttormsen said.

Mitchell said the togetherness means the groups will have to see each other, hear what the other has to say — and talk.

"They don't necessarily see eye to eye, but they all have the same vision," she said.

"Every one of the groups are interested in the forest, and they're interested in trails and they're interested in keeping things clean out there."

Such a large mass of volunteers can get a lot done. The Forest Service figures Mitchell's army of 300 volunteers performed 5,500 hours of work in the forest last year — labor that the agency values at $86,000.

Recently Mitchell and five other volunteers cut 30 downed trees off five miles of trail near Box Canyon. Other groups have finished more than 100 miles so far this summer.

"The trails we cleared would not have been done if we didn't do it," she said.

On the Net:

Three Sisters Wilderness: s/threesisters.html

Willamette National Forest:

Deschutes Natonal Forest:

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