About the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Program
The Dolly Sods Wilderness and adjacent public lands have seen rapid and steady increases in visitation over the last several years, and this accelerated during the pandemic. More visitation inevitably leads to more impact, both to the natural lands and processes, and to peoples’ experience of wilderness. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy was instrumental in the designation of Dolly Sods as wilderness, and we feel a special sense of stewardship for the area.
Through the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program, the Conservancy is partnering with the Monongahela National Forest to sponsor volunteer activities that will assist the Forest Service in managing and preserving Dolly Sods Wilderness and adjacent areas.
Established in the summer of 2021, the program has been enthusiastically received by visitors and recognized by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, West Virginia MetroNews and other media throughout the state. More than 100 volunteers have signed up and are making a difference for Dolly Sods.
Below are descriptions of each of the different aspects of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Program and how you can become involved as a volunteer.
If you would like to make a donation to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards, click here.
Wilderness Trailhead Stewards
Volunteers are stationed at popular trailheads during times of peak visitation, mainly on weekends, and engage in brief conversation with visitors about what makes Dolly Sods unique, the values of wilderness, and Leave No Trace practices.
A “script” outlining the key messages provides a basis for the conversation, but volunteers will typically use their own words and adjust to the needs of the visitor. The script is keyed for an engagement of 30 to 60 seconds, but visitors frequently ask questions about trail conditions, route and camping suggestions, and weather, which provides an opportunity to work in other messages. The Conservancy has prepared a trail map of Dolly Sods with wilderness and Leave No Trace messages on the back, which we frequently hand out to hikers.
No special skills or background are required for volunteers, though familiarity with Dolly Sods and hiking experience will be helpful. Before starting at trailheads, volunteers are encouraged to complete two free, self-guided online courses, and we will provide an in-person training on effective messaging, key concepts and safety considerations. The training is completed by joining an experienced Trailhead Stewards at a trailhead for a live practice session. The online courses are:
The Wilderness Act of 1964: Introduces the key concepts of the Act and how they are applied to designated wilderness areas. The course concludes with an optional test and an opportunity to obtain a certificate. Allow 2-3 hours.
Leave No Trace Online Awareness Course: Provides an understanding of recreation-related impacts, the Leave No Trace Seven Principles (© Leave No Trace: www.LNT.org) and how Leave No Trace skills and ethics can help protect outdoor places. Certificate provided on completion. Allow 1-2 hours.
Trailhead Register Maintenance
The Monongahela National Forest is adding voluntary hiker sign-in registers at trailheads. These will provide information on the number of visitors and usage patterns that can be used to guide future allocation of resources. Volunteers will periodically check the boxes and replenish supplies, replace register pages, and forward the completed forms to the Forest Service. No experience is needed, just minor training. Living close to Dolly Sods to adopt a regular route or fill in for other volunteers would be advantageous. Currently the “paper route” is covered, but availability for backup or vacation substitution would be welcome!
Solitude Monitoring Team
An “opportunity for solitude” is one of the key elements of wilderness character identified in the Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Stewards assist the Forest Service by monitoring the status of solitude in Dolly Sods Wilderness on a regular basis. Volunteers sign up to hike a designated trail on a specified date and period of time, and simply record their encounters with other groups, individuals, and pets along the way. This is one of our most popular activities, as you get to enjoy a hike in Dolly Sods!
Trail Maintenance Team
Dolly Sods is a uniquely wet and rocky area, interspersed with wetlands and areas of shallow soil over impermeable bedrock. This makes trails vulnerable to poor drainage, erosion and uneven tread. While the trails in Dolly Sods will always be primitive, the Wilderness Stewards work with the Forest Service to address the worst problem areas, particularly where hikers are tempted to bypass the trail to avoid difficult sections.
Under the direction of Monongahela National Forest trail specialists, volunteers assist with trail maintenance, rehabilitation or rerouting. Tools and training are provided by the Forest Service. The ability to hike to the location and engage in physical labor will be important for most jobs, but lighter roles may be available to support and supply the crew. This part of the project is planned for implementation during 2023. Training and work project schedules as well as job options will be provided when it is ready to be implemented.
Campsite Inventory Team
During 2022 the Wilderness Stewards completed a comprehensive survey of the campsites associated with the system trails in Dolly Sods and discovered about 350 of them. Follow-up surveys will be conducted to inventory sites away from system trails, update the status of known sites, and detect newly created sites. The surveys involve volunteers hiking specified trail segments, looking for evidence of campsites, and using an app to record the location, size and characteristics, impact levels and photographs of each site.
Volunteers should have the ability to hike at least several miles in Dolly Sods, though overnight trips should not be necessary. Announcements will be made about future survey projects as they are planned.
Crosscut Sawyer Team
Trees fall across trails in Dolly Sods all the time, and other wood and brush clearing is often needed. Because mechanized equipment cannot be used in wilderness, this must be done with hand operated tools such as crosscut saws, loppers and axes. The Wilderness Stewards is forming a Crosscut Sawyer Team to work with Forest Service experts to maintain safe trail passage in Dolly Sods.
Volunteers will be trained and certified at the A Sawyer level, for bucking in non-complex situations under the supervision of a higher-level Sawyer. Training in wilderness first aid and CPR is also required for certification. This is a great opportunity to gain new skills and certification that can be used in Dolly Sods and other locations.
- Trailhead Stewards Training and All-Stewards Picnic: August 26, 2023 at Seneca Rocks Discovery Center
How to get involved
Simply fill out the form here. If you have any other questions, write to email@example.com. We will be in touch if more information is needed and with information about training, scheduling, etc.
You are not required to make any specific time commitment. Some people may live close to Dolly Sods and thus be able to participate more often or fill in on short notice, but even if you live far away or can only join in the project occasionally, your involvement is welcome.
The Conservancy will send announcements about specific projects or dates.
Wilderness Trailhead Stewards are scheduled on most weekends and holidays through an online signup form and, once you have completed the training, you will be welcome to sign up whenever your schedule allows. Each weekend day will involve a three-to-four-hour period at the trailhead, though you would be welcome to stay longer.
Couples and families are welcome to participate and work as partners. There is no minimum age limit, so youths may also participate, under the judgement and discretion of their parents.
All Stewards receive a ball cap from the Conservancy as a token of our appreciation and to help identify them when participating in the projects. Trailhead Stewards also receive a specially embroidered vest to wear at the trailheads. Volunteers will fill out a Volunteer Service Agreement with the Conservancy.
Expect pictures to be taken of volunteers in service for public relations purposes by both the Conservancy and the Monongahela National Forest. Membership in the Conservancy is not required, but is strongly encouraged, as it is through the strength of our members that we can continue to work with various agencies to protect and preserve the wild lands of West Virginia.
For a PDF version of this document, click here.