By Dave Johnston
During August the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards were all about seeking solitude (or lack thereof) and finding campsites, without staying in them. Let me explain.
One of the key values of wilderness character cited in the Wilderness Act is an “outstanding opportunity for solitude”, and wilderness land managers must regularly monitor it to determine if that value is being maintained. Due to resource limitations the Monongahela National Forest has not been able to do this regularly. The partnership with the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards makes it possible for this to be done by volunteers, thus freeing up Forest Service resources for other tasks.
Solitude monitoring is done by volunteers simply hiking a trail for two hours out and two hours back, while recording the number of parties, people and dogs encountered along the way. Three trails are monitored, representing a Very High, High, and Moderate usage level. The Wilderness Stewards did a simplified version of this last year, hiking each trail twice on weekends and twice on weekdays on days chosen at the convenience of the volunteer.
This year we have followed an “enhanced” protocol, where each trail is hiked five times on weekends and five times on weekdays, and the dates are randomly chosen. More data about each encounter is also recorded. This approach provides a more robust, statically valid sampling of the solitude that a “real” hiker would experience when visiting the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
The dates for the hikes were randomly generated by computer to fall between mid-July and the end of August. A team of dedicated Stewards was assembled and given an opportunity to “claim” the dates and trails. The schedule filled up quickly and nearly all the monitoring hikes were done at the appointed time.
As of this writing nearly all of the solitude routes have been completed. It is too early to do a full statistical summary (I may have that next month), but here are a few observations.
The number of people (and dogs) encountered during the four-hour hike ranged from zero (on the Moderate-use Wildlife trail) to highs of 104 and 124, both on the same weekend, on the Bear Rocks and Big Stonecoal trails, respectively. Those two corresponded to an average number of people encountered of about 30 per hour. The overall average of people encountered on all trails on both weekends and weekdays is running around 7.5 per hour. That is lower than the overall average of 10 per hour recorded last year, but that was during the fall, which is known to be even busier than the summer.
It appears that the High Use zone Big Stonecoal trail may be approaching the use level of the Very High Use Bear Rocks trail. Bear Rocks has an average of about 11.5 people encountered per hour, while Big Stonecoal’s is about 8.5, and when only weekends are compared, they are even closer. This may be at least partly due to increasing popularity of a loop hike starting at Bear Rocks, going down Rocky Ridge and camping on Big Stonecoal before looping back by way of Lion’s Head. The same caravan traverses both trails.
The average number of individuals in each group encountered is about 2.75, and this is remarkably consistent across all trails and on weekends and weekdays. This is also consistent with the data from the trailhead registration boxes for the first seven months of this year. It may represent a slight increase in average party size over last year, though we cannot yet account for seasonal differences that may affect how people form their groups.
So what does all this mean for the “opportunity for solitude” at Dolly Sods? It’s hard to say. Different people value solitude differently, and have different ways of evaluating whether they’ve got it, or not. There is no single benchmark for what constitutes “acceptable solitude” applicable to all wilderness areas. Instead, each wilderness area is supposed to regularly monitor the status of solitude in order to detect and respond to changes and trends.
Given that Dolly Sods does not have previous usable inventories of solitude, that will be difficult. There is no doubt that the number of encounters is greater than in years past, and using the current results as a baseline for future changes neglects the question of whether it has already passed an acceptable level. WVHC and the Wilderness Stewards will continue working with the Monongahela National Forest to understand and use the results of solitude monitoring.
In last month’s Voice I described how the Wilderness Stewards are taking on a project to inventory all the campsites in Dolly Sods. As with monitoring of solitude, wilderness land managers must periodically assess the condition of recreational sites, including backcountry campsites, and determine whether they are consistent with wilderness character. Volunteers can help make this possible by doing the fieldwork to gather the needed observations.
During July the Wilderness Stewards worked with the Forest Service and Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards to develop and refine the procedures for finding and surveying the many campsites in Dolly Sods. A phone app that can be used in the backcountry to record observations was developed and tested, and trainings for the campsite inventory team were conducted. By August the teams were hitting the trails. It is expected that the surveying will continue through September.
All of the trails in Dolly Sods have been divided into segments of around 1.0 to 2.5 miles long, defined by end points such as trail junctions and creek crossings. In addition, several long social trails known to have campsites along them have been identified. Each of these defines a “zone” that needs to be completely inventoried; that is, any campsites along them found, measured and documented.
Volunteers on the campsite inventory team have an opportunity to “claim” one or more zones and essentially take responsibility for visiting that zone and surveying the campsites within it. They can do so on their own schedule, and can combine zones to cover during a backpacking trip or working from a base camp, or just during day hikes. While on the trail, the members look for signs of likely campsites: social trails leading off the main trail, areas of level and dry ground, especially in spruce or pine groves, and areas where the trail crosses a stream.
Campsites are usually (though not always) defined by the presence of a fire ring, or at least an area of compressed vegetation larger than would be made by an animal. Once a site is identified the Steward assigns an identification number based on the trail number and uses a phone app to record a GPS waypoint. The Steward then records observations in the app, such as the presence of fire rings or camp furniture such as rock chairs or tables.
A rating of the degree of disturbance to ground cover and severe damage to trees (including those cut down), the distance of the site from a stream or other water and from the system trail, and the number of discernible or well-worn social trails associated with the site are recorded. A rough measurement of the disturbed area is made. Finally, a record photo of the site, including a permanent, recognizable landmark such as a distinctive tree or boulder is taken, and the azimuth of the landmark and distance from the photo point are recorded.
Once the survey of a site is complete, the Steward saves it and moves on to the next site. At the end of the day or when a zone is complete, and the Steward returns to cell coverage, all of the accumulated campsite records are uploaded to a server. The data is available to be shared with WVHC.
The Trailhead Stewards have continued to post at the trailheads on weekends, reminding visitors of Leave No Trace principles, the need for preserving the wildness of Dolly Sods, and helping them prepare for a wilderness experience. Though the volume of visitation may be down a bit from the pandemic, it still reflects the popularity of Dolly Sods which has been on an upward trend, especially over the past decade, and the Stewards remained quite busy. As in past years, we expect the visitation to peak during the late September to early October leaf season.
I want to extend the appreciation of WVHC to all the Stewards who devoted a huge amount of time during August to the solitude monitoring, campsite inventory and the trailheads. Having all three of our main projects come together during August was unexpected, but the Stewards came through and made sure we met our objectives in each case. With this type of commitment from the Stewards, there is hope that the wilderness character of Dolly Sods can continue to be improved.
Would you like to be part of the exiting activities we are doing and planning for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards? 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.