By Dave Johnston
In addition to the ongoing Trailhead Stewards program, where volunteers are posted at the trailhead every weekend, the Wilderness Stewards have several other efforts that should kick off within the next month or two. Following on last year’s successful forays, volunteers will again conduct solitude monitoring surveys of backcountry trails. And a long-planned comprehensive survey of the many campsites that have sprung up in Dolly Sods is expected to be implemented this summer. Finally, the first trail maintenance project may be undertaken later in the year.
Given that “outstanding opportunities for solitude” is one of the key values of wilderness called out in the Wilderness Act, evaluating the status of the opportunity is an important activity for Wilderness managers. Last year the Wilderness Stewards assisted the Forest Service in conducting a total of 13, four-hour surveys of encounters with other hikers and campers along three representative trials within the wilderness. This year we are planning to expand the program using an “enhanced” protocol that will provide more statistically useful data to the Forest Service.
The Stewards plan to conduct the surveys at least twice this year, in the summer and fall. Volunteers will hike designated trails on randomly chosen dates, and will record the number of groups and the total number of other people encountered along the trail or in campsites. Each survey will last about four hours and cover about five to eight miles of trail. Training will be provided.
Campsites are always a focus of concentrated impact in a wilderness. They are an unavoidable marker of human presence, and when they go overboard they can become so ubiquitous that they detract from the wilderness itself. Collections of sites in close proximity can become small towns on weekends, and tend to lead to cutting of standing trees, construction of camp furniture, destruction of vegetation, and a party atmosphere. Even relatively dispersed sites can be encountered so frequently that the solitude of the wilderness experience is compromised.
Campsites in Dolly Sods have proliferated in the past few years. A preliminary survey done last year suggested that as many as 300 sites are now present. In order to get a handle on the number of sites and their degree of impact the Wilderness Stewards will be working with the Forest Service to do a comprehensive survey of the sites throughout Dolly Sods. Volunteer teams will focus on specific areas at a time, and will identify campsites, record their location and make detailed measurements and observations about the conditions of each site and its proximity to other sites.
We are currently working with the Forest Service experts on the details of what these surveys will entail and how they will be conducted. We expect to have the plans worked out during June, and target beginning surveys during July or August, probably lasting through the end of the year. We will need volunteers who are interested in getting into the backcountry “working” an area to assess the campsites in a zone. Some overnight trips may be an option. Thorough training and practice sessions will be provided.
Trails in Dolly Sods are notoriously muddy, rocky, challenging to negotiate, and difficult to maintain. To some extent this is an appropriate part of the “Dolly Sods experience”, and consistent with the intentionally primitive nature of the wilderness. But some trails are poorly routed and so untenable that they actually impact the environment around the trail, which often includes wetlands and the habitat of wild and endangered creatures.
Some level of intervention is needed to both protect the environment and provide reasonable visitor access. The Forest Service is tasked with minimizing the intrusion of human engineering of trails against the need to preserve and protect the natural character of a wilderness. Thus doing trail maintenance in Dolly Sods entails additional considerations, and studies must be conducted to identify the locations of greatest need and prescribe the actions that would have the least impact on the wilderness.
The Wilderness Stewards are working with the Forest Service to identify the areas of greatest need, where trail conditions have the greatest impact on both user experience and the adjacent habitat. We hope that this will lead to projects to remediate some of the worst “hot spots” in Dolly Sods during the current season. If we are able to do this, we will be mobilizing work crews in late summer or fall, with training and tool provided by the Forest Service.
If you would like to join us in participating in any of these activities, please visit the WVHC website (wvhighland.org) and follow the links to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. You can find a sign-up form on the site, and can indicate the programs(s) you are interested in. Once you sign up we will be contacting you once these programs are ready to be implemented.