The hands behind the Forest Service’s iconic signs

Inside a storage room at the Forest Service’s Flagstaff Ranger District headquarters, shelves, floorspace and tabletops are crammed with wooden signs. Simple and sturdy, the signs are hand carved with messages marking everything from trails and riparian areas to places closed to camping or motorized vehicles.

But these signs, rich in historic character, wouldn’t exist across the Coconino’s 850,000-acre Flagstaff Ranger District without the work of volunteers who spend hours creating and maintaining them, said Paul Dawson, volunteer coordinator with the Flagstaff Ranger District.

Thanks to the free labor, the individually crafted wooden markers end up being a much cheaper option than buying plastic trail signs, which many other forests without such a robust volunteer base are forced to do, Dawson said.

One year, volunteers churned out 2,000 signs. In 2016 with a smaller crew, they made 300 to 400, Dawson said. It is thanks to that work that the Flagstaff Ranger District now stores about 1,600 extra signs that can be used to quickly replace what’s out in the forest, he said.

The task of making a sign can range from a few hours to two to three weeks depending on size and the amount of text involved. Most of the time, volunteers use an electric router guided by small square tiles inscribed with each letter of the alphabet that are rearranged to create different words.

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