By Dave Johnston
Dolly Sods Wilderness is enjoying a needed winter respite from the crowds of visitors. But the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards has not been dormant! We have been working with the Monongahela National Forest to lay ambitious plans for the coming season. Some projects will be a continuation or expansion of our activities over the previous two years, while we have some exciting new projects on deck.
Planning for some of these is ongoing, and we will have announcements in the future with more specific descriptions and details, and opportunities to sign up for new teams we are organizing. But for now, I want to give you a hint of what is coming, so you can start thinking about how you can be involved or support Dolly Sods this year.
Trailhead Stewards: We will be planning a major training for new Trailhead Stewards this spring, probably in early May. This will be held in conjunction with our annual picnic that all Wilderness Stewards are invited to at Seneca Rocks. We are also arranging for Forest Service staff to train some of the more senior Trailhead Stewards to do the training, so that we can bring new Stewards on more frequently during the summer.
The comprehensive campsite inventory that we did last summer documented many campsites that have endured major impact, including excessive firewood gathering, tree cutting, rock slab camp furniture and overbuilt fire rings, and proximity to streams and trails. We will be revising the key messages to put more emphasis on wilderness-compatible camping in our trailhead discussion and developing a handout on campsite tips tailored for Dolly Sods.
Solitude Monitoring: Last year the solitude monitoring team conducted enhanced monitoring during the summer on trails representative of the several usage level zones typical of Dolly Sods. This produced a wealth of information on usage patterns and the availability of an “opportunity for solitude” in this wilderness, which the Forest Service can use to make appropriate management decisions. We plan to perform solitude monitoring on a regular, cyclical basis to gauge conditions during all three seasons and detect trends. This year we will focus on monitoring during the spring or fall.
Trail Maintenance: Many trail sections in Dolly Sods are both uncomfortable for hikers and have unnecessary impact on the surrounding environment. Increases in staffing and resources on the Forest Service side have allowed them to begin working with us to identify locations that we can work on to begin addressing these hot spots. We will be forming a trail maintenance crew or crews to start trail work projects on a regular basis this year. We will be starting with relatively small projects, hardening trail treads and eroded areas and localized drainage issues, but this could lead to more ambitious projects. The Dolly Sods trails will always be primitive (as they should be in a wilderness), but this work will begin to address areas that impact the natural environment and have led hikers to behavior that worsens the impact.
Crosscut Sawyer Team: A specialized adjunct to the trail maintenance team will be a skilled and highly trained team of crosscut sawyers. There is always a need for clearing trees from the trails, and the ice storm in December resulted in many downed trees across roads and trails in Dolly Sods, which will require a major cleanup effort, probably extending into the summer. In person, hands-on training leading to certification will be provided by Monongahela National Forest trainers.
Campsite Inventory, expansion: Last year a team of Wilderness Stewards hiked all the system trails in Dolly Sods and identified about 350 campsites associated with those trails. Each campsite was surveyed to assess its location, size, level of impact and proximity to streams and trails. This data is allowing the Forest Service to prioritize sites that are not compatible with wilderness for remediation and restoration of natural conditions. This year we will focus on surveying campsites that are away from system trails or along frequently used social trails in the backcountry.
Campsite Remediation: The campsite inventory of last year identified a large number of campsites that are not compatible with wilderness standards. Problems include too-close proximity to streams and trails, camp furniture and other human structures made of displaced rocks, campfire impacts including depleted resources of dead and down wood as well as felled trees and hacked branches, and excessive impact to vegetated areas. The Forest Service is assessing these observations and developing priorities and plans for addressing specific sites, and we will be developing a team to work with Forest Service staff in the field to address these. Activities may range from cleaning up and packing out trash and extraneous “accessories,” disassembling and scattering rocks structures, to closing and restoring campsites to natural conditions.
In addition to these projects, we will be revising and expanding parts of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s website, both to update and streamline the information about the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards and the sign-up process, and to provide needed information about Dolly Sods itself. One of the recommendations coming out of the Leave No Trace Hot Spot workshop held last year was that LNT information specific to Dolly Sods be more widely available. We will be developing content based on LNT principles adapted for the issues that have become apparent in Dolly Sods, with an emphasis on best practices to minimize further impact.
We are excited about the possibilities to make a positive difference for Dolly Sods this year. Please look forward to upcoming announcements about further development of these projects and consider how you might join in.
Would you like to be part of the exiting activities we are doing and planning for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards? Visit wvhighlands.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.s