By Dave Johnston
During July the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards project hit the ground with a running start. In partnership with the Monongahela National Forest (MNF), WVHC is organizing volunteers to address issues challenging the wilderness values of Dolly Sods and surrounding areas. The first and most visible element, the Wilderness Trailhead Stewards, has kicked off with well-attended training and the regular presence of volunteers at popular trailheads. WVHC and the MNF are working toward initiating additional activities targeted toward the fall. (For a review of the background of the project and detail of the components of the program, see the July issue of the Voice).
As Dolly Sods has become more well known and increasingly visited, there has been a tendency to treat is as just another National Forest hiking area, disregarding its unique standing and characteristics as a designated wilderness area. New visitors (and many veteran ones) are unaware and not mindful that wilderness is where “earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man… protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” [from the definition of Wilderness in the Wilderness Act of 1964]. This underlying principle of the concept of wilderness has implications for both visitor expectations and behavior, and affects both current visitor experience and the ability of the area to be experienced as wilderness in the future.
The need to reach out to visitors and increase understanding of the wilderness nature of Dolly Sods, and the practices compatible with wilderness visitation, was among the first issues identified by WVHC and MNF. The Wilderness Trailhead Stewards approach is designed to engage hikers as they enter the wilderness and convey “key messages” about wilderness ethics and Leave No Trace (LNT) practices during a short conversation. The approach is nonconfrontational and positive, and meant to take advantage of the existing desire of visitors to a natural area to protect it. As discussed below, the reaction has exceeded our expectations, with visitors not only receptive to the message, but eager for more information.
WVHC put out a call for volunteers in May and June, with a very good response. The first class of volunteers went through training in early July, and volunteers began staffing the busiest trailheads in mid-July. As of the end of July, 75 volunteer-hours had been recorded at trailheads, and several hundred visitors, ranging from locals to Montana, had been engaged.
The Trailhead Experience
The majority of hikers approaching the trailheads are day hikers, and most of them are casual, first-time or infrequent visitors. Many have heard, through social media or word of mouth, that Dolly Sods is a spectacular place, and they want to see for themselves. Many others have visited the front-county locations, such as Bear Rocks Preserve, and now want to get a taste of the backcountry they have heard about. Many have kids in tow, and a significant percentage had plans for blueberry and huckleberry picking during the July peak season.
Backpackers have tended to be more prepared, though not universally so. Most have done at least some homework on Dolly Sods and have an idea of where they want to go, and about general conditions. They tend to be better equipped, with rain gear and proper equipment and clothing. Their experience level tends to be higher, either from backpacking in other locations or from prior visits to Dolly Sods. Most profess familiarity with Leave No Trace principles and backcountry campsite etiquette. However, we often sense a lack of complete appreciation for how camping in a wilderness area is a bit different from other backcountry locations. The evidence of firewood abuse, inappropriate camp furniture, and the proliferation of toilet paper and other trash around campsites testifies to a lack of understanding of the primitive and undisturbed values of wilderness, at least among some backpackers.
For both backpackers and day hikers, the Trailhead Stewards have turned out to be an important resource. People often arrive with incomplete information about Dolly Sods, how the trails and landscape work, and what it is like “inside”. We often help people select a route, destination, or turnaround point given the time or mileage they have in mind. Backpackers often arrive in the evening in need of advice on where to find a campsite not too far down the trail. We also warn people about trail and camping area trouble spots and how to avoid or deal with them. We check the weather each day and let people know when to anticipate storms, especially if they will be in an exposed area. And, surprisingly, we often help people find the route to get home!
A remarkable number of people arrive at the trailhead without any form of map. The MNF does not provide maps at the trailhead, although the new trailhead signs, which include a detailed and colorful trail map, are a valuable reference. Even day hikers should not go into the wilderness without a map, and even those with a navigation app on their phone should have a paper backup. So WVHC has printed a supply of maps, using the MNF Dolly Sods trail map on one side and key wilderness messages and LNT principles on the other, to hand out to visitors at the trailhead. We have a supply on regular paper, and a supply printed on waterproof paper for backpackers and rainy days. These have been a popular handout and folks are grateful for the chance to have a map with them.
The Stewards employ a relaxed, conversational tone that puts visitors at ease and invites them to ask questions. We emphasize that we are there as a resource for visitors, not “guardians” of the wilderness. We don’t need to impose messages about wilderness ethics and Leave No Trace, but find ways to introduce them naturally into the conversation, without lecturing. For instance, if a backpacker is heading toward an area with a heavy concentration of campsites, we warn them that having a campfire might be difficult since dead and down wood will be scarce and not to cut or break standing wood of any kind. Similarly, we reinforce that human waste needs to be deposited well away from camping areas to avoid concentration of obvious latrines and associated toilet paper fields that make campsites unpleasant for everyone.
Although our current small group of dedicated volunteers is able to cover most of the busiest trailheads during a part of each weekend, we can always use more volunteers, and in the long run, to achieve the impact we want, we will need many more. Please consider joining the fun by becoming a Wilderness Steward. Even if you live far away or can only do an occasional stint at a trailhead, your involvement will contribute to making a difference in one of our special places. For more information send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We aren’t under any illusions that the Trailhead Stewards effort will result in sudden or dramatic change in the issues facing the Dolly Sods Wilderness or related areas. But increasing awareness and enhancing the sense of responsibility among visitors about their role in preserving wilderness character, even just a little bit in each person, is a beginning piece of the puzzle. And we have more planned, as described below.
The Trailhead Stewards effort is just the beginning of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards program. Our original plan of action, worked out jointly with the Forest Service, includes maintaining voluntary trailhead registration boxes to gather concrete and actionable visitor data; conducting surveys in the backcountry to assess and report conditions to the Forest Service that will help guide remedial and restorative actions; and volunteer crews actually working under Forest Service direction to create and restore wilderness-friendly trail and campsite conditions. These elements will be rolled out as Forest Service resources become available, but we want to start marshalling volunteer interest in anticipation of them.
The trailhead registration boxes are likely to be installed later this summer. We have identified several local volunteers who can check them and replenish supplies, collect filled sheets, and forward the information to the MNF on a regular basis.
Next up will be monitoring of backcountry conditions. WVHC will make available teams of volunteers who will hike into the backcountry and make observations and record data in accordance with methods and information needs identified by the Forest Service. This data can then serve as a basis for the Forest Service to assess the degree to which conditions are consistent with the concept and intent of the Wilderness Act and allow planning and implementation of management actions.
The monitoring may have as many as three aspects:
- Campsite Inventory: Volunteers would hike trails, looking for existing campsites or side paths that often lead to a campsite. They will record the latitude and longitude, take pictures, and record observations using a Forest Service-specified form.
- Trail Conditions: While hiking, volunteers will note problematic trail conditions using Forest Service-specified criteria, record the location, and take photographs.
- Solitude monitoring: While hiking, volunteers will record information about “encounters” with other visitors, using standardized procedures. This effort would be in conjunction with the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS).
Training for each different type of monitoring would be provided. At this point it isn’t known whether these would be conducted as a “sweep” over the course of a few days, or over a longer period, or whether it would be done on weekends or weekdays. Hiking would definitely be involved, in some cases long enough to get deep into the backcountry, with the potential for an overnight stay.
We are working to begin implementation of these efforts by the fall of 2021. In anticipation of the time needed to organize crews and provide training, we are putting out a “first call” for interested volunteers. We can’t ask for a commitment right now, but we want to assemble a list of folks who are interested and may be available, depending on how things fall into place. If you might want to participate, send an email to email@example.com with “Monitor” in the subject line. We will update you as this effort develops.