Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Update

Traffic jam at Dolly Sods. (Dave Johnston)

By Dave Johnston

The month of October sees the greatest concentrated influx of visitors to the Dolly Sods area, and the Wilderness Stewards were out in force doing their part of supporting the wilderness in the face of the onslaught. Particularly on Saturdays, there is a near-constant flow of visitors to the busiest trailheads from midmorning to late afternoon, and the Trailhead Stewards rarely get more than a five-minute break. Even teams of two Stewards are hard pressed to keep up, but we have found that visitors will often wait in line for the chance to get an orientation and advice for their venture into the wilderness. 

We also had a chance to add up and summarize the number of hours that Wilderness Stewards have donated to the support of Dolly Sods over the past year. Here are some observations on both topics.

Trailhead Stewards

October in the West Virginia highlands is all about fall color, and Dolly Sods often seems like the epicenter of that. The brilliant scarlet of the blueberry, huckleberry and chokeberry leaves of the heath barrens, interspersed with spruce groves and pockets of deciduous tree color make the plateau of the northern part a unique sight. Cottongrass and cranberries light up the bogs. Golden cinnamon ferns surround the trunks of oak, beech, birch and maple and complement the colors of their crowns. 

A hike up Red Creek offers a rich mixture of a colorful canopy above, crispy fallen leaves on the trail, boulders and waterfalls along the streams. Those who venture to an overlook can take in the dramatic view of Red Creek canyon with a gumdrop assortment of colors on the canyon walls. Even the long roads bordering the wilderness offer a variety of views of trees in different hues, rock outcroppings, overlooks to the east, and a lining of persistent asters, snakeroot and goldenrod along the edges. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Bear Rocks Preserve, adjacent to Dolly Sods Wilderness on the northeast, has an unparalleled combination of a red blueberry carpet, windswept flagged spruce trees, fantastically-shaped boulders and stunning views of the brilliant colors on the slopes of the Allegheny Front, with the ridge and valley terrain of eastern WV and beyond.

It isn’t any surprise, then, that the Dolly Sods is also the epicenter of weekend fall excursions. Though summer and spring weekends can be very busy, the four weekends from the end of September through mid-October can be overwhelmingly so. Visitors converge from hundreds of miles around and make the bumpy drive up the mountain to Bear Rocks Preserve and the trailheads on Forest Roads 75 and 19. 

The Bear Rocks parking lot fills immediately, and cars pull into the rocky meadows and park on both sides for a half mile down the road; more than 200 vehicles have been counted in just this area. Cars coming from opposite directions cannot pass each other on the narrowed road, and gridlock can occur, with traffic at a standstill for long periods. Similar overflow situations occur at the other trailheads, particularly Blackbird Knob and Red Creek.

This may seem like merely a front country annoyance, but it affects the wilderness, too. When people have to contend with the hassle and delay of traffic that may be worse than what they experience back home in “civilization,” their attitudes and expectations for the wilderness are affected. They arrive at the trailhead stressed and preoccupied, and may be less prepared for a wilderness experience. They are less likely to appreciate the essential characteristic of wilderness – its wildness – and may regard it as just another park. People may feel less personal responsibility for acting in ways consistent with wilderness values. It isn’t hard to see how an attitude influenced by a traffic jam can contribute to greater impact on the wilderness, as well as to the visitor’s own experience.

One way that our Trailhead Stewards can help is to be a bridge between the frustrations of the civilized world and the calming influence of the wilderness. By greeting visitors at the trailhead and welcoming them to Dolly Sods we can help reorient their attention to their wilderness visit, and replace the irritation of the road with the vision of a wilderness experience. We can get them thinking about what the wilderness is all about, and help them plan a route that would be consistent with their time, energy and expectations. We can remind them of Leave No Trace principles and the importance of minimizing the evidence of their presence, and help them be prepared for the particular conditions they will encounter in Dolly Sods.

No one is under any illusions that the Trailhead Stewards are the antidote for the tortured, tangled traffic adjacent to the wilderness. That is an issue that clearly needs to be addressed by both the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy in order to create an environment that is consistent with arrival at a wild, natural area. But in the meantime, we do our part help with the transition from the aggravation of civilization to the wonder of the wilderness.

Volunteer Hours

The Forest Service operates on a fiscal year from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and part of our responsibility as partners is to report on our volunteer activity during that year. That includes summing up the number of volunteers and the number of hours they devoted to each of our projects. Here is a breakdown of the results, and a few comments:

Trailhead Stewards (not counting transportation time): 574.5 hours; 22 volunteers

Trailheads were reliably staffed during peak times on every weekend from mid-May to the end of October. Training was held in May, which resulted in the addition of about 30 Stewards. However, we still cannot cover all of the main trailheads during all the busy parts of the weekend. To do that we simply need a larger pool of volunteers, each willing to contribute a little time, even just occasionally. 

Solitude Monitoring (Training, 35 surveys of four hours): 160 hours; 19 volunteers

Arguably the most enjoyable of our activities, this allows volunteers to simply hike an assigned trail for four hours, recording the number of groups and other hikers they encounter. This year we used a more advanced procedure, and the Stewards came through famously, completing all the surveys on time and according to specifications.

Campsite Inventory (including training field surveys, hiking all trails, training, field testing of app and procedure): 200 hours; 13 volunteers

This is the most challenging project we have done to date: recording the location and condition of all the campsites in Dolly Sods accessible by a system trail. This required the Stewards to hike a several-mile trail segment, looking for signs of campsites, spend about 30 minutes at each site making measurements and observations, and often following obscure social trails leading to a string of sites. Each of the 33 segments typically took the better part of a day to complete. As a result, we discovered and reported on about 350 campsites.

Registration box monitoring and delivery (approx.): 50 trips x average 25 minutes: 21 hours; one volunteer

Maintaining the registration boxes, collecting the registration sheets, tallying them and summarizing the results allowed for the assessment of the popularity of different trailheads, proportions of day hikers and backpackers and other key usage information, for the first time in years. The data has led to an estimate that about 35,000 people visit the Dolly Sods backcountry during the course of a year.

Total Volunteer-hours in the field: 955.5 hours

Development and admin time not included in above (approx.): Includes office time, research, promotion and speaking, development of forms and procedures, contact with volunteers, organizing training and project schedules, etc: 650 hrs. 

Total Volunteer-hours: 1605.5 hours

This is an impressive result, especially for a volunteer program completing its first full year of activity. While it is impossible, at this point, to quantify the positive impact on the well-being of Dolly Sods Wilderness, we have every reason to believe the efforts of the Stewards are contributing to the preservation of its wilderness character. The Trailhead Stewards engaged in direct contact with visitors, which almost certainly caused many of them to think twice about how to conduct themselves in the wilderness. The data we collected through registration boxes, solitude, and campsite monitoring gives the Forest Service solid evidence on which to base decisions and actions to effectively manage the wilderness. 

I provided this information in my report to the WVHC Board during the Fall Review. I want to pass on the Board’s enthusiastic and heartfelt thanks to all our volunteer Wilderness Stewards for their dedication, skill and effectiveness in supporting Dolly Sods. You truly are making a difference, one that may well last long into the future. 

Join us!

Would you like to be part of the exiting activities we are doing and planning for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards? Visit the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards webpage. 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.