By Dave Johnston
The month of September gave us a chance to finish up and assess the results of several projects in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, gear up for the hectic fall leaf season, and begin planning for the future.
Levels of Visitation
The Forest Service first installed registration boxes at the Dolly Sods trailheads along FR 19 and FR 75 in September of 2021. Since then, Wilderness Stewards volunteers have visited the boxes at least once a week to remove filled sheets, replace pencils and keep the registration system in good working order. We scan the sheets and forward them to the Forest Service. We tally the number of parties, number of people, their planned routes, number of planned nights, and zip codes onto a spreadsheet.
We now have a full year of data to give an idea of the current level of visitation to the backcountry areas of Dolly Sods. During that time a total of nearly 6000 separate parties have signed in, with a total of just over 15,000 individuals. The average party size is about 2.5 people. A little more than 50% of the parties are day hikers, with the remainder planning to spend at least one night. For those, the average planned stay was about 1.7 nights per party.
Of course, this represents only those who actually signed in at the registration boxes, and doesn’t include the trailhead off Forest Road 80, from Canaan Valley, which doesn’t have a box. So if we assume a registration rate of 50%, and add in about another 10% for FR 80, the total number of backcountry visitors was probably about 34,000 individuals in about 13,000 parties.
We can’t yet make any observations about any changes in visitation levels from last year, during the pandemic, to this year. We won’t be able to begin to do that until the end of October, the first full month common to both years.
The Trailhead Stewards have continued to greet visitors at the trailheads and serve as a resource for their visit. We have been gearing up for the usual crowds during the peak of the blueberry color season in early and mid-October. Even the “preliminary” last weekend of September presented a challenge for two Stewards to keep up with the hiker traffic at the Bear Rocks trailhead.
The Trailhead Stewards program is our most direct action to address the problems associated with heavy visitor use of the Dolly Sods Wilderness. While everyone, including be most well-intentioned and skilled among us, has an impact, visitation can be sustainable if hikers and campers adhere to Leave No Trace practices and understand the unique requirements of wilderness travel. An increasing number of visitors arrive with good intentions but only a vague idea of how to act in a wilderness.
Our “authority of the resource” methods leverage those good intentions toward active mindfulness of the need to keep the wilderness wild and to minimize the evidence of their presence throughout their visit. No single trailhead contact will reverse the decline of Dolly Sods, but every little bit of consciousness raising, applied to a large number of visitors, contributes to making a difference for the wilderness.
We can always use more Trailhead Stewards, and we think you’ll find it a rewarding experience for yourself as well. See the paragraph at the end of the article for more information and to sign up.
As of this writing (late September) nearly all of the trails in Dolly Sods have been surveyed for campsites. Those found have been measured, photographed, and their conditions and environmental impact assessed. It looks like we are on track to have identified and surveyed about 300 campsites by the end of the month. Follow up surveys will be done to complete the inventory along certain social trails and in off-trail zones of the wilderness. It is likely that a total of around 350 campsites will eventually be located and surveyed.
The summer 2022 solitude monitoring project was completed on schedule at the end of August. As reported in last month’s Voice, following an enhanced protocol allowed us to record the rate of encounters with groups and individuals as a function of time, which gives a better idea of what the experience of a hiker would be like than merely looking at the total encounters. For example, here is a graphical representation of the frequency of encounters with groups, and the number of people in each group, during an approximately four-hour hike on the Big Stonecoal trail on a weekend:
The hiker never went more than about 30 minutes between encounters, and most were never more than a few minutes apart. In total the hiker encountered 35 groups, an average of 8.5 groups per hour, or about one every seven minutes. The total number of people and dogs was 133, an average of 32.5 per hour.
The results of each of the 30 solitude hikes have been compiled into a spreadsheet and subjected to a preliminary statistical analysis, and all of this forwarded to the Forest Service. We do not plan to another survey this fall, but may do them during both the spring and fall of next year.
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.