Big Results, Big Plans for Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards 

By Dave Johnston

For the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards, winter is a chance to reflect on what we have accomplished and what we have learned from the previous year’s engagement. It’s also a chance to lay plans for the upcoming season. 

Through the generous contribution of time and resources by scores of volunteers, we have built a movement that has gained the respect of the Forest Service and become recognized throughout West Virginia and beyond. Wilderness Stewards contributed more than 2,200 volunteer hours during the past fiscal year, which is remarkable for any local volunteer organization, especially one as young as we are.

But most importantly, we are beginning to make a real difference for Dolly Sods: visitors are more tuned in to the unique nature of wilderness and the Leave No Trace principles. They are more mindful of applying low-impact practices during their visit. We have been able to make valuable observations about the number of visitors, the opportunity for wilderness solitude, campsite and trail conditions, and the status of natural features of Dolly Sods, and report them to the Forest Service so they can better manage the area. In short, we are actively and effectively supporting the wilderness character of Dolly Sods.

That’s certainly not to say that the job is finished. Visitation statistics from the trailhead registers suggest that even after the pandemic, the popularity of Dolly Sods has not slacked off. In fact, the registration data indicates that overall visitation may have increased by around 15% from 2022 to 2023. Increased use of the wilderness, even by well-intentioned visitors, inevitably results in a more significant impact and challenge to the wilderness character. 

So, the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards will be doubling down on our activities in support of Dolly Sods in the coming year. Following is a review of the training and opportunities for field projects we will be launching this spring and summer.

Some of these are a continuation of what we’ve been doing for three years, while others are expanded to have even more positive impact, and some are brand new opportunities. Also, check the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy website for updates and further information.

If you would like to be included on a list to be notified about further information for any of these programs or events, sign up for the Wilderness Stewards on the Conservancy website or send an email to

Trailhead Stewards

Training for New and Current Stewards: May 18 at Seneca Rocks Discovery Center

The Trailhead Stewards are our signature program and have helped thousands of visitors have a successful, low-impact experience of Dolly Sods. We are well on our way to having the busiest trailheads staffed with volunteer Stewards during weekends and holidays. We can always use new volunteers who enjoy interacting with visitors and sharing advice on routes, what to expect and how to Leave No Trace in our special wilderness.

Guided Hikes, just for Stewards: Last year, we started offering special day hike for continuing education and experience in certain areas of Dolly Sods. The hikes are led by Dolly Sods “veterans” and naturalists, and provide an opportunity to learn more about the natural history and features of the wilderness, and we do a little trail and campsite cleanup along the way. These were popular, and we will be expanding them during the coming season.

Annual all-Stewards Picnic

May 18 at Seneca Rocks Picnic Pavilion

Held right after the Trailhead Stewards training, all Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards are invited to share their experiences, meet other Stewards, and get recognition for all they have done to support Dolly Sods. Food and beverages are provided, and we are working on a program for entertainment and learning.

Crosscut Sawyer Team

Training: April 13-14 at Seneca Rocks and in the field

Last year, we formed a Crosscut Sawyer team, and new members are welcome! Sawyers clear trails and campsites of fallen trees, brush and vegetation using traditional, non-power tools compatible with the wilderness. We hold scheduled projects through the spring and summer in Dolly Sods and other nearby wilderness areas. The full weekend training covers the planning and tactics, safety, tools, and techniques for bucking trees and includes a full day of practice in the field, leading to certification as an A or B Sawyer. Basic first aid and CPR are required, and the Forest Service can provide training. 

Trail Maintenance Team

Training: April 27-28 at Seneca Rocks and in the field

We formed this team last year, and new members are welcome! The trails in Dolly Sods are challenging and purposely primitive, but they need a lot of work to protect the wilderness environment by keeping water off the trail and people on the trail! We use various tools and specialized techniques to make the trails compatible with wilderness. Scheduled projects are held through the spring and summer. The weekend training includes classroom instruction on tools, methods, and safety and a day of fieldwork. Here’s your chance to make a positive difference for the Dolly Sods trails.

Solitude Monitoring

Online training to be held in early May

One of the primary values of wilderness is an “opportunity for solitude,” and the status of this needs to be periodically monitored. Volunteer Stewards hike specified trails for four hours and record the number of groups, individuals and dogs or horses encountered. The information is used by the Forest Service to develop plans for visitor use management of the wilderness. Training is an approximately one-hour online session, and our monitoring period will be from mid-May through June. This is one of our most popular activities, and we would welcome new volunteers.

Backcountry Stewards

This brand-new program is under development and is targeted to kick off in the early summer of 2024. Building on the success of the Trailhead Stewards, Backcountry Stewards will take the messages of a low-impact wilderness experience, Leave No Trace practices, and advice on how to have a safe and enjoyable visit into the “interior.” 

Stewards will also monitor and report trail and campsite conditions, do maintenance and cleanup, and assist with emergencies and other incidents in the field. Backcountry Stewards will be selectively prequalified and screened and given extensive training. We will start with a small group, but we plan to have a path toward becoming a certified Backcountry Steward, so expressions of interest in getting involved as we grow are welcome and encouraged. 

The best way to be sure you see further updates as these programs develop (and on anything new we might come up with) is to add yourself to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards on the Conservancy website.