Service Week volunteers at Breitenbush Hot Springs

Image: Olivia Fromm

Breitenbush Hot Springs has been a destination for centuries: a gathering spot for Indigenous tribes, a lauded camping destination in Oregon’s early days, and now a very popular getaway guests often have to book far in advance—even just for a day pass.

It’s also a worker-owned cooperative, and employees at Breitenbush live and work on the 154-acres property, maintaining the land, running guest services, and more. According to the resort’s forest steward, Paul Clearfire, acts of service are deeply rooted in Breitenbush culture. They’ve had guests come up to stay for discounted rates in exchange for “meaningful work” ever since the current version of the century-old resort opened in 1977.

A service week in 2021

Image: Olivia Fromm

For the past few years, volunteer-based service weeks at Breitenbush, about two and a half hours southeast of Portland in the Willamette National Forest, have been especially important. In 2020, the Lionshead Fire destroyed 73 structures and 101 acres of land at Breitenbush, and they’ve had to rebuild from the ground up.

“We’re really in triage here, still, from the fires,” Clearfire says. “The interest has never been higher than it is right now to [volunteer] here, and there’s just so much to do.”

Volunteers for service weeks past may have spent their time assisting in the kitchen, painting, or doing maintenance work. Since the fire, however, Breitenbush employees need help planting trees and native wildflower seed, clearing land of debris, and, at times, consciously planting (or not planting) to help fire suppression.

A volunteer planting trees last year

Image: Olivia Fromm

“There’s a large burn area on the edge of our community that used to be a forest. So, what we’re doing is rather than building there, or replanting trees there, we’re putting a wildflower meadow there to act as a fuel break, so the next time fires come in, we’ll have a little more time before the fire actually reaches us,” Clearfire explains.

This year’s service weeks (long weekends, technically) are April 25–28, July 19–22, and October 11–14. Guests are asked to bring work gloves, safety glasses, and clothes that can get muddy. A typical volunteer day, according to Clearfire, consists of a few hours of work sessions (separated by meals, soaking, and activities such as yoga or mindfulness workshops) in exchange for a 30 percent discount rate on lodging—and of course, the chance to help to restore this beloved place to its former glory and help protect it for the future.

“In a world that is being changed dramatically because of human actions, here’s a place where human actions can really have a positive influence,” says Clearfire. “We have an opportunity right now to act more consciously in our relationship to the forest that surrounds us.”

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