The gates on the roads to Dolly Sods are open now, and we can expect the number of visitors to begin building up to Memorial Day weekend, which unofficially kicks off the busy season. The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards have been planning for this and will be continuing our tried-and-true previous programs as well as initiating several new project areas, all aimed at helping preserve the wilderness character of Dolly Sods.
Review of last year’s projects
A review of the activities we’ve engaged in since the program began two years ago is in order. The first, and still the most prominent part of the program is the Trailhead Stewards, who greet visitors and offer help and insight into preparing for the wilderness and observing Leave No Trace principles. Last year we added a number of new Stewards and are close to being able to cover the busiest trailheads on most weekends. We also added green vests embroidered with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Wilderness Stewards logo for recognizability at the trailheads.
During the summer our solitude monitoring teams recorded encounters while hiking three representative trails using an enhanced protocol, which will provide better statistical validity for tracking trends and determining thresholds for action. In addition, our campsite inventory team discovered and surveyed about 350 separate sites along the trails in Dolly Sods. The survey revealed widespread severe impacts, including many felled trees, camp furniture made of unearthed rocks, major vegetation disturbance, and proximity to water and other trails. The Forest Service is currently digesting the data and working on prescriptions to address the issues.
We continued to maintain the trailhead registration boxes, pick up the registration sheets and record the data. A summary of the data showed the proportion of hikers and backpackers entering at each trailhead and led to an estimate that about 35,000 people visit Dolly Sods each year.
The Wilderness Stewards used the winter to huddle regularly with the Forest Service and develop plans for the upcoming season. This led to the launching of both a new trail maintenance team and a specialized crosscut sawyer team. This will significantly expand the fieldwork capabilities of the Stewards and have a tangible positive effect on the trails of Dolly Sods.
In addition, we laid plans to update and add content to the Conservancy website about Dolly Sods, wilderness concepts, and Leave No Trace principles. A press release announcing the new trail maintenance and crosscut teams, as well as later training for Trailhead Stewards, was sent out in March, which resulted in a number of new signups.
Crosscut Sawyer Team
The new crosscut sawyer team met for two days of training in early April. Members received a day of classroom study and a second day learning and applying skills in the field. The National Forest trainers stressed safety, situational awareness, and how to plan the cut by understanding the objective and assessing the tensions and “binds” in a log. The training resulted in the certification of 11 new sawyers at the A or B level, with a similar number waiting in the wings for the next training.
The ice storm that hit Dolly Sods in December left many trees and branches across the trails. Because motorized or mechanical equipment cannot be used in wilderness, it is necessary to use traditional muscle-powered tools to clear the blockages, which will make the trails both safer and minimize environmental damage.
The crosscut sawyer team has already been out with the Forest Service clearing trails twice in April, and it is expected they will be working through the spring to address all the storm damage.
Trail Maintenance Team
While the crosscut team is trained specifically to work on downed timber, the trail maintenance team will address broader issues affecting trail safety and environmental impact. Trails in wilderness are purposely primitive, without manicured walkways or unnecessary structures, and will always present an opportunity for challenge to the wilderness visitor. But trails are provided to allow visitors access to wilderness, so it only makes sense to ensure that they are both safe and don’t result in unnecessary degradation of the surrounding natural environment.
Among other things the trail maintenance team will be working to grade and harden the trail tread and divert water that leads to erosion, mitigate wet and muddy areas that tempt people to widen or bypass the trail, and repair damaged sections. We will be starting with low hanging fruit near trailheads, but as the team gains experience and skills we expect to take on more challenging jobs deeper in the wilderness.
The first two-day training for the trail maintenance team was held in late April. Dolly Sods trails have a lot of issues, so we expect the crew to be working on a frequent and ongoing basis throughout the season.
The Trailhead Stewards will again be stationed at the most popular trailheads, beginning in May and extending through the summer and fall. This is our most visible program, and we have had the opportunity to help several thousand visitors prepare for their visit to Dolly Sods over the past two years.
The first training of the year will be held on May 20, and will be followed by an all-Stewards picnic at Seneca Rocks. The Forest Service has trained several experienced Stewards to present the training, so we should be able to hold more trainings as new Stewards join throughout the season.
Given the results of last year’s campsite inventory and the recommendations of the Leave No Trace organization, we will begin placing special emphasis on campsite and campfire issues. We’ll make backpackers in particular aware that some sites may have been closed for restoration, and to only camp in existing sites. When they do camp, they need to minimize their impact by refraining from building camp furniture of elaborate fire rings, using only dead and down wood (if having a fire at all), protecting food from curious animals, following proper backcountry hygiene practices, and packing out any trash. We are preparing a new handout outlining these principles.
Other plans for this year
Based on campsite inventory, the Forest Service will be identifying the most impacted sites for closing and restoration. Analysis of the data gathered by the Stewards last year is currently being analyzed and a plan is being developed. We expect that once it is ready for implementation the Stewards will be assisting with the decommissioning of these campsites.
We expect to hold another enhanced solitude monitoring survey in the fall. This will establish a cycle of doing each of the seasons (spring, summer, fall) every three years so that the level of solitude available in this wilderness can be assessed and monitored over time.
How to get involved
As these projects evolve, we will send out more information and specific arrangements to all who have signed up to be a Dolly Sods Wilderness Steward. To ensure that you get information on the team or training you are interested in, first become a Wilderness Steward and indicate your projects of interest on the signup form.
Simply go to the Conservancy website wvhighlands.org and look for the link on the home page to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. From there you can go to the online signup form. If you have any other questions, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will be in touch if more information is needed and with information about training, scheduling, etc.