Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Head into Busy Summer Season

By Dave Johnston

With the inauguration of the Memorial Day weekend, we have passed into the busy season at Dolly Sods, which will last through the summer and fall color season. The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards have successfully initiated new programs to support wilderness trails, brought in a new cadre of Trailhead Stewards, and begun reaching out to raise the consciousness of this year’s visitors. Here is a recap of recent Wilderness Stewards activities.

Trail Maintenance

Following up on the formation and training of our Crosscut Sawyer team in early April, in late April, we held the first meeting and training of a Trail Maintenance team. While the Crosscut team is specially certified to deal with the sometime-difficult and technical task of clearing wind-thrown trees and encroaching brush from trails, the Trail Maintenance team has a broader scope: ensuring that wilderness trails avoid contributing to degradation of the surrounding environment and providing for safe passage for wilderness visitors.

Guided by the principles of “keep water off the trail and keep people on the trail” the team studied the methods used to control drainage with minimal “engineering” of wilderness trails and how to use psychology to influence hiker behavior on the trail. Team members learned about optimal trail slope, drainage features, and the best approach for trails on side slopes, straight uphill and on level ground. Gargoyles and other means of encouraging hikers to stay off the downhill edge to prevent erosion were highlighted. The team was introduced to the tools used for trail work, some of them specialized, including the fire rake, McCloud, and venerable Pulaski.

The next day members had a chance to put these methods into practice on a trail in Otter Creek Wilderness. After viewing some extensive but well-disguised rock work done by a previous specialized team, the volunteers shaped trail contours, created drainage slopes called “knicks” and channeled the outflow of a seep to prevent it from bogging down the trail. 

The challenges of trail management in Dolly Sods are numerous. The rocky and near-surface substrate, coupled with gentle contours in many areas, make effective drainage difficult. Many of the trails were simply routed on repurposed logging railroad grades and don’t represent good trail alignment in the first place, and would be difficult to rehabilitate without rerouting. Trail work—along with many other initiatives in the wilderness—are further limited by the potential for impact on the Cheat Mountain Salamander, an endangered species. 

Trails in Dolly Sods will remain primitive—as they should—and will never be luxurious turnpikes. Still, the Wilderness Stewards Trail Maintenance team will be working with the Forest Service to mitigate sections of trails that have had the greatest environmental impact or have encouraged hikers to widen or bypass the trail. Work is expected to take place regularly, starting this summer.

Trailhead Stewards Training

In mid-May, we kicked off the oldest of the Wilderness Stewards initiatives for the 2023 season: the Trailhead Stewards. Volunteers began staffing the trailheads on May 13, and the following weekend we held training for new Stewards at Seneca Rocks. A total of 12 new volunteers learned about the history of Dolly Sods, the issues confronting it, and how practicing Leave No Trace principles can enable visitors to have minimal new impact on its wilderness character. 

In the training we place special emphasis on a technique called the “Authority of the Resources,” which leverages the good intentions of most visitors toward actions consistent with resource protection. Trailhead Stewards learn a set of “key messages” that they try to work into their conversations at the trailhead. These are based on Leave No Trace principles but adapted for the particular issues and conditions faced during a visit to Dolly Sods. After the classroom training, new Trailhead Stewards arrange to meet a veteran Steward at a trailhead for some guided real-world experience interacting with visitors. At the completion of their training at the trailhead, new Stewards receive their distinctive green vest, a Highlands Conservancy cap and a supply of maps and other resources they use to assist visitors.

Immediately following the training, both the new Stewards and current ones returned to the Seneca Rocks picnic pavilion for a well-deserved celebration of past successes and mobilization for the coming season. Seven volunteers were recognized for their dedication and participation in all of the main projects conducted by the Stewards in 2022. Frank and Judy O’Hara, Chris Longe and Elizabeth Olmo, David Mong, Jill Watkins and Marjorie McDiarmid each put in at least 40 hours of volunteer time during the past year. Each was awarded a coveted Highlands Conservancy-customized HydroFlask. The Highlands Conservancy and the Forest Service thank them and all of the Wilderness Stewards for their commitment.

Crosscut Trail Clearing

As of this writing, all of the trails in Dolly Sods have been cleared of winter blowdown, though we have had reports of blockage by newly-fallen trees. Other than forays to Dolly Sods to clean up any new issues, the Crosscut Sawyer team is likely to focus on Otter Creek Wilderness for the rest of the summer.

Wilderness Skills Institute

Each year the United States Forest Service, in cooperation with wilderness stewardship organizations in different parts of the country, produces regional Wilderness Skills Institutes. Each one consists of two one-week sessions, with several different courses offered each week. This format allows for in-depth exploration of topics and skills related to wilderness stewardship. Examples of courses include basic and advanced wilderness stewardship, crosscut sawyer training and certification, basic trail maintenance, advanced trail rockwork, training to be a Leave No Trace trainer, and visitor use management, among others.

I attended the 2023 Southern Appalachian Wilderness Skills Institute in the Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina. I took the course “Leading a Volunteer Experience.” This course covered the cycle of managing a volunteer-based stewardship effort, from recruitment through debriefing and recognition. Topics included developing attractive recruitment messages, volunteer service agreements, job hazard analysis and accommodations, tailgate talks and field leadership practices, evaluations and debriefing, and working with partnerships.

I was happy to see that the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards is already following many of the best practices outlined in the course. Even so, I came away with many ideas for enhancement of our procedures for managing our volunteers and shoring up our documentation. 

Just the experience of the Wilderness Skills Institute is worth the trip. It is held at the interesting and informative educational center of the Cradle of Forestry, in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest. The nearest hotels are 15 miles of winding forest roads away, so many of the participants stay in a camping area designated for the event, and there are lots of opportunities for networking and sharing of experiences. There is an easy trail system immediately adjacent, and the event even coincides with the emergence of the mysterious blue ghost fireflies! I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about implementing wilderness stewardship initiatives and gaining specific, valuable skills. 

How to get involved

As all of our projects evolve, we will send out more information and specific arrangements to all who have signed up to be a Dolly Sods Wilderness Steward. To ensure that you get information on the team or training you are interested in, first become a Wilderness Steward and indicate your projects of interest on the signup form.

Simply go to the Conservancy’s website ( and look for the link on the home page to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. From there, you can go to the online signup form. If you have any other questions, write to We will be in touch if more information is needed and with information about training, scheduling, etc.