By Dave Johnston
The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program took a big jump forward on May 15 when about 30 new volunteers participated in Trailhead Stewards training. The training provides the background knowledge and techniques the Stewards will use at the trailheads to educate visitors about Leave No Trace principles, wilderness etiquette, and special considerations for Dolly Sods.
The program was begun as a partnership between the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Monongahela National Forest in the summer of 2021, in response to the impacts of increased visitation to Dolly Sods. The Trailhead Stewards have been very well received by the public, who are grateful for tips on what to expect in the wilderness and assistance in planning a hike or overnight trip.
During the first season the Stewards were able to have volunteers at the three busiest trailheads about 25% of the time during weekends. Looking to expand the pool of volunteers so that the trailheads could be covered most of the weekends this year, the Stewards launched a publicity program in early spring to invite new volunteers to join the effort. Stories about the program ran on WV Public Radio and on “West Virginia Outdoors” on WV MetroNews, as well as numerous statewide and local newspapers. This generated strong interest among new volunteers.
The training was held at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center. Brooke Andrew, the Trails, Volunteers, and Partnerships Program Manager for the Monongahela National Forest, presented an overview of the Dolly Sods Wilderness and how it fits in with the other publicly-managed lands and other natural areas in the vicinity. She reviewed key locations in Dolly Sods and the impacts that have been observed as more visitors are attracted to the location, particularly in backcountry areas. She explained the seven Leave No Trace Principles and rules and regulations for wilderness areas and for the National Forest in general.
Dave Johnston, the Coordinator for the Wilderness Stewards, went over the key messages that the Stewards want to relay to visitors, and gave tips and learnings based on the experience of the Stewards during the previous year. He highlighted the “Authority of the Resource” approach used by the Trailhead Stewards to influence the knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of visitors to the wilderness toward supporting the wilderness character of Dolly Sods.
After this classroom training, each of the new Stewards will meet up with an experienced Steward at a trailhead to complete their training. They will have an opportunity to watch the experienced Steward interact with visitors, and the ways we work our key messages into the pleasant conversation. The trainee then has an opportunity to try it themselves, and receive observations and feedback form the veteran. After this experience the new Stewards will be able to schedule themselves at trailheads when it is convenient for them.
After the training the trainees were joined by current Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards for a picnic hosted by WVHC. At the picnic, two pairs of Stewards, Frank and Judy O’Hara and Chris Longe and Liz Olmo, were honored for their dedication during the inaugural year of the Stewards. All of them were had a frequent presence at the trailheads and participated in other Wilderness Stewards activities, including solitude monitoring and serving on the Wilderness Stewards Subcommittee.
The next training for Trailhead Stewards is tentatively scheduled for August. For more information or to sign up, see the WVHC website (wvhighlands.org) and the link for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards.