When Mike Heard quit his job to volunteer with the Ventana Wilderness Alliance (VWA) in 2007, his plan was to take about a year off. “Like all people who start a project without quite knowing what’s involved, I had wildly unrealistic ideas,” Heard says.
In the years since, the former electrical engineer has continued volunteering full time, logging 9,000 hours in the wilderness and single-handedly taking on a project to restore the first trail he ever hiked in Ventana back in 1984 – the Cone Peak Trail, which had become overgrown and often impassable.
“It’s a pretty rare thing to have somebody that says, ‘I’m going take on this Herculean endeavor and manage it,’” says VWA Executive Director Mike Splain. “We’re really blessed.”
Heard started out in 2008, working mostly alone. As the VWA began to grasp how dedicated he was to the project, they sensed an opportunity and began fundraising to leverage Heard’s leadership.
Paid crews came on to assist Heard, who thought it would take about two years to fully restore the 22-mile loop around Cone Peak, the steep coastal mountain in south Big Sur. Then came a series of massive windstorms that downed dozens of trees along the trail – which, being in a designated wilderness area, had to be cut with handsaws – and two years turned to five.
“I was tired all the time,” says Heard, who is now 60. “It took a while, but you see the project moving along, and where there hadn’t been a trail before, the next day you have another 100 feet.”
Heard and his crews worked eight to 10 days at a time, with four to six days off in between. And though he enjoyed the comforts of his Bay Area home – eating vegetables, sleeping under a roof, taking bike rides – he was always eager to get back to the Ventana Wilderness. “It’s one of the coolest places on earth,” he says. “I’d pay to do the work if I had the money.”
That’s essentially what Heard has done the last six years, nearly burning through his savings. “I’m sufficiently broke now, I can’t be a full-time volunteer,” he says.
In spring 2014, the 50-year anniversary of the Wilderness Act, he was named the U.S. Forest Service’s Volunteer of the Year. “It’s an honor, but I wish I could have spread some more of it around,” he says. “Projects like these take a lot of people.”
This summer, as Heard was starting to look for a paying job, VWA was awarded a four-year, $180,000 grant as part of the settlement over Napster/Facebook magnate Sean Parker’s Big Sur wedding debacle. Next year, Heard will be a paid contractor. He looks forward to the opportunity to train more volunteers to carry on his legacy.
“Trail work loses its benefit if you don’t keep up the maintenance,” he says. “I want to get more trail leaders to adopt and maintain them after they’re rebuilt.”
But before that happens, he’ll be riding with the Forest Service in the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. “In a moment of weakness,” he says, “I agreed to be Smokey the Bear’s handler.”