The Chainsaw-Wielding Volunteers Who Maintain Miles of Forest the Government Can’t Reach

The Lowelifes Respectable Citizens' Club is all about backcountry trails.

At first glance the people assembling at the National Forest trailhead parking lot in the cold, clear alpine morning look just like any group of outdoorsy friends, ready for a day of biking in the mountains. But wait a minute…there are two freshly-baked pies stacked next to a giant chainsaw, and a powerfully-mustachioed man is pulling prybars and heavy-duty axes out of his converted van, and the bikes are being loaded like packmules bearing camping gear and hardhats. This is no normal, frivolous wilderness outing—there’s serious work to be done. This is the Lowelifes Respectable Citizens' Club, and they’re heading into Angeles National Forest to restore trails, to ride bikes, and, apparently, to eat some pie.

Despite the large power tools and liability waivers being signed, the vibe is cheerful and laid-back—someone passes around donuts, and as more people arrive in various vans and 4x4s, the group coalesces and their camaraderie is evident in the excited chats about the day ahead. By the time the final adjustments are made to the burly mountain bikes bristling with tools and the crew starts pedaling them into the woods, it’s obvious this operation is a manual labor of love.

The Lowelifes take their name from the iconic Mt. Lowe, and this intrepid band of volunteers dedicate their free time—nearly 10,000 hours of it since 2019—to building, maintaining, and enjoying the trails in the Angeles National Forest, the sprawling backcountry playground that sits in magnificent repose just above the cacophonous spread of Los Angeles. Within this vast 700,000 sq foot wilderness lie the legendary peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, such as Mount Baldy (real name Mt. San Antonio, but doesn’t “Baldy” just roll off the tongue?) and Mount Baden-Powell (this one could use a snappy nickname, frankly); plus beautiful waterfalls, bountiful wildlife, pristine campsites, and a seemingly endless variety of trails. But in an area so massive, the government resources to adequately handle the demands of the Forest can sometimes be spread thin, or non-existent.

hiking trail workers in angeles national forest pass equipment across a stream
Photo by Karl Hess

Angeles National Forest is administered by the United States Forest Service, and addressing the reality of a wilderness this size that can be accessed by 20 million people is a staggering job, as the forest can see more visitors in a year than both the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. And it’s a task which the elements make all the more difficult: powerful storms move rock and earth, roads and trails are buried or washed away. Blizzards wail, boulders the size of cars smash down the chaparral hillsides. Wildfires scorch hundreds of thousands of acres and consume structures and vehicles in an instant. The USFS simply doesn’t have the time, manpower, or funds to contend with the indomitable will of nature all on its own. And that’s where The Lowelifes come in.

“It is a common misconception that USFS trails are maintained by paid Forest Service workers. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the USFS heavily depends upon a volunteer workforce to maintain their trail network.” Erik Hillard, the Lowelife CFO/Treasurer, explains.

The Lowelifes Respectable Citizens Club was born in 2019, from a few friends’ desire to not just help maintain the trails they loved to ride on their mountains bikes, but to open new trails, to become standard bearers for environmental stewardship, to foster and educate a community of all types of wilderness-lovers, and to have a damn good time doing it. When they established a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with a focus on forest resource restoration, they decided the Lowelife’s mission would go beyond moving giant rocks, chainsawing through massive felled trees, and slicing back thorny brush… but there would be plenty of that too.

Trail work is just that, work. And this job is tough—even getting their heavy gear into the backcountry is no easy feat itself. To that end, the Lowelifes often hook rugged trailers to their bikes to haul tools, fuel, and metal stakes and mesh fencing that can form the foundation of new trails. Biking up or down a steep, rocky singletrack is hard enough—now try it towing a metal trailer full of gasoline and sharp blades. It takes a hearty sort to thrive in this environment.

hiking trail worker carries metal in Angeles National Forest near LA
Photo by Karl Hess

But the Lowelifes firmly believe that if you’re going to work hard, you also have to play hard. They’ve embodied that ideal from the start with their monthly two-day campout events, which are open to anyone who isn't afraid to get a little sweaty. The campouts combine putting in good work with an equally important mission—having a good time with good people in the great outdoors. And after a long day out on the trail—whether it’s cutting down branches of the dreaded invasive poodle-dog bush (no petting, it’s poisonous), or splitting boulders with a power hammer—there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: dinner.

“Camping out and cooking dinner in the backcountry is a great way to build relationships and create a space where we can get to know each other,” says Matt Baffert, the Lowelifes CEO/President, and the bearer of that powerful mustache. “Because of that, we have built meaningful relationships and a community of stewards and friends who spend time with each other outside of working trails.”

making tacos on a campout in angeles national forest near los angeles
Photo by Karl Hess

As the campfire crackles and copious cold ones crack open, the vivacious people from the trailhead this morning all seem wiped out, but there’s also a giant smile plastered on every face, gleaming in the firelight. It was a hot day of heavy work on the steep hillsides of this beautiful forest, restoring sections of the Kenyon Devore trail closed since the catastrophic Bobcat Fire in 2020, but now laughter wafts amongst the woodsmoke, and the newcomers to the group seemingly feel already as much a part of the crew as the grizzled veterans. Anticipation grows, it’s reached the hour for a vaunted Lowelifes culinary camping tradition: it’s taco time.

And we’re not talking store-bought tortillas—that would be an insult to the refined sensibilities of this merry assemblage, and to the very forest itself. No, a tortilla press is produced and the fresh masa starts going in. As the tortillas hit the griddle, so does a very healthy quantity of juicy carnitas, and while that beautiful smell fills the night air, a worthy array of toppings is laid out: from freshly-made guac to pickled red onions, from luscious Oaxacan quesillo to bright, fragrant pico de gallo. “Food is a really important part of Lowelifes,” says Matt as everyone hungrily descends, and there’s no argument. These here citizens have produced an incredibly respectable spread.

After a round of seconds, and thirds, and a few pulls from the flask being passed around, the once-blazing fire is now only embers, and the gathered gang of about 15 souls lounge back in their camp chairs, sated from the feast. But before people’s thoughts turn to crawling into their tents for a much-deserved slumber, there is one more point of business, one last job for this tireless team: “We gotta eat these pies!” exclaims Rob Pettersen, a founding member of the group, his broad grin illuminated by his headlamp. And without hesitation the Lowelifes do what they do best: they get to work.

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Karl Hess is a comedian, writer, outdoors-enjoyer, and sandwich enthusiast living in Echo Park, LA, CA.