By Dave Johnston
With the signing of a partnership agreement between the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) and the Monongahela National Forest (MNF), the long-planned project to address the impacts of increased visitation at Dolly Sods Wilderness is off the ground. Under the partnership, dubbed Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards, WVHC will provide volunteers for activities identified by WVHC and the MNF as helping to preserve and protect the Wilderness and enhance visitor experience. WVHC is now actively recruiting volunteers for the project.
Like many wild, natural and scenic areas around the country, Dolly Sods experienced a dramatic increase in visitation during the pandemic. This exacerbated what was already a long term-trend, as social media and word of mouth have increased awareness of the wonders of Dolly Sods and encouraged more and more people to come see for themselves. But the pandemic brought out many people who were relatively inexperienced in the outdoors, and unfamiliar with the unique characteristics of the wilderness, or with standards for basic backcountry behavior and Leave No Trace (LNT) practices.
The impacts included gridlock on the narrow forest roads, parking in meadows, camping next to roads, establishment of new backcountry campsites crowded together, trash and other litter, cutting of standing trees for firewood, and poor personal hygiene, including fields of “TP flowers” adjacent to campsites.
The famously wet and muddy trails of Dolly Sods saw an increased number of “bypass routes” impacting the wetlands adjacent to the trail. As the trails in Dolly Sods are not blazed (to minimize evidence of human presence), some people felt the need to carve arrows and helpful directions into trees. Superfluous rock stacking (and other inappropriate structures), which disturbs both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, became more common and introduced potential confusion with more modest trail marking cairns. One of the key values of wilderness, embodied in the Wilderness Act of 1964, “an opportunity for solitude” has become increasingly hard to come by, especially on weekends.
While the surge in visitation related to the pandemic may recede some (and this remains to be seen), it brought home the continuing need to anticipate and mitigate impacts in popular but sensitive locations such as Dolly Sods. Given WVHC’s role in advocating for the designation of the Dolly Sods Wilderness, we feel a special sense of stewardship for the area. Members of the Public Lands Committee began discussing what the Conservancy could do in the fall of last year. This led to discussions with MNF representatives about what they needed from volunteers to support their efforts to preserve and protect the wilderness and associated areas.
The group identified five types of activities that could be undertaken to make a difference in the long-term health of the wilderness. Not all of these will be undertaken immediately, but they form a road map for joint activity by WVHC volunteers and the Forest Service.
Wilderness Trailhead Stewards
Volunteers will be 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.
Trailhead Register Maintenance
The MNF is adding voluntary hiker sign-in registers at trailheads. WVHC has purchased, and donated to MNF, the materials needed for construction of the boxes. These will provide information on the number of visitors and usage patterns that can be used to guide future allocation of resources. WVHC volunteers will periodically check the boxes and replenish supplies, replace register pages, and forward the completed forms to the MNF.
Campsite Inventory Crew
The MNF plans to conduct yearly or twice-yearly surveys of backcountry campsites in Dolly Sods. Volunteers would hike assigned trails or sections of the wilderness, record the location and condition of campsites, take photos, and make other observations, using a standard form provided by the MNF.
Trail Maintenance and Rehabilitation Crew
Under the direction of MNF trail specialists, volunteers will assist with trail maintenance, rehabilitation or rerouting. Volunteers may also assist in bringing in supplies, food and drinks to the work site.
Traffic Monitoring and Documentation
At this point it is not clear whether this aspect will be needed to supplement MNF actions. If needed, volunteers would monitor and report on traffic and parking conditions, and possibly document with counts and photos.
The partnership agreement between WVHC and the MNF was formalized in mid-June, so we are now ready to recruit volunteers and begin implementation of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Program.
The first project to be kicked off it the Wilderness Trailhead Stewards. WVHC and MNF developed a “script” to introduce the most important information hikers and backpackers need to know before embarking on Dolly Sods trails, designed for a brief (less than one minute) encounter. Several other “key messages” as well as FAQ’s are included to support a more extensive conversation if the visitor has questions. The emphasis is on a friendly, non-intrusive but informative greeting to Dolly Sods.
A MNF Recreation Officer and a couple of WVHC volunteers did a “dry run” of the Trailhead Stewards project during the rainy Memorial Day weekend. We found that all visitors we approached were receptive and appreciative of the messages. A surprising number continued the conversation with questions about Dolly Sods and trail conditions, which gave us an opportunity to work in additional messages. Because of the heavy rain some creeks were potentially uncrossable and trail conditions were even worse than usual. We gathered information from people coming off the trail and used that to help new visitors enhance their preparedness and plan routes. Overall, we were very pleased with the response and felt strongly that the effort will enhance the long-term health of Dolly Sods as well as visitor enjoyment and satisfaction.
The partnership is planning to start having a regular Trailhead Steward presence at the busiest trailheads by mid-July. We will start with a few hours during weekends, and as the number of volunteers grows we hope to have most trailheads covered during the key times on weekends, holidays, and even some weekdays.
Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards do not need to have any special experience or expertise. There is no specific time commitment required; some people may live close and be available more often, but even those who only visit occasionally are welcome to participate as their schedule allows. We recommend and encourage all volunteers, especially the Trailhead Stewards, to take two online courses on the basics of the Wilderness Act and Leave No Trace awareness. Volunteers will be provided with in-person training by the Forest Service and resources to use at the trailheads. WVHC will provide each volunteer with a WVHC T-shirt and cap to help identify them to visitors.
To receive a volunteer application or for more information, contact Dave Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.