By Dave Johnston
Following is an update and review of the success of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards, as well as a look ahead at exciting new projects we are exploring for the future.
As part of our partnership with the Monongahela National Forest, we keep track of and report the volunteer hours contributed by the Stewards in all of our projects during each federal fiscal year, which ends on September 30. For fiscal year 2023, we reported a total of 2,230 hours, an increase of almost 40% from last year. This was driven partly by the addition of Crosscut Sawyer and Trail Maintenance teams and by continuing our popular solitude monitoring projects. But we also saw a considerable increase in Trailhead Stewards hours, nearly doubling to 1,106 hours. The Forest Service was impressed and passed on its thanks to all of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards volunteers.
The big increase in Trailhead Stewards hours was enabled by a significant increase in active Trailhead Stewards during 2023. We were able to hold two trainings for new Stewards this year, and added 25 to the ranks. The new recruits have been enthusiastic, and several have already become regular hosts of the trailheads, rivaling our veteran Stewards. We currently estimate that we cover about 35% of the potential trailhead slots with at least one Steward during weekends.
Stewards have handed out nearly 800 Dolly Sods trail maps since July. They provide a handy map of the Dolly Sods system trails to supplement any phone map visitors might use, and include Leave No Trace principles geared for the needs of the Sods on the back, as well as links to the Conservancy’s website. We often encounter people who have saved the maps and brought them back for their next visit!
During the past several months, we have implemented a new training opportunity for Trailhead Stewards. Many Stewards appreciate the beauty of Dolly Sods and want to pass on the importance of preserving it to visitors, but aren’t as familiar with the trails and features of the interior. We have offered short “guided hikes” to Stewards so they can experience the Wilderness firsthand, learn more about the natural and human history of the Sods and see some of the campsite and trail impacts we are trying to decrease. These hikes have been popular and help the Stewards be more effective advocates for the Wilderness at the trailheads.
The Stewards have once again taken on an enhanced solitude monitoring project, in which volunteers hike specified trails for four hours on randomly chosen dates and record the number of groups, individuals, and dogs or horses they encounter. This monitoring is a regular part of assessing the availability of an “opportunity for solitude,” which is one of the key elements of wilderness character.
The current study runs from mid-September to the end of October and is meant to assess the solitude conditions during the busy fall color season. This follows a study done in the summer of 2022 and precedes one planned for the spring of 2024. The Stewards plan to repeat these, one season per year, on a three-year cycle, to allow changes and trends in visitor impact to be observed. The data is being provided to the Forest Service.
Crosscut Sawyer Team
The Stewards’ Crosscut Sawyer team was formed this past spring to use crosscut saws and other traditional, hand-powered tools to clear trails and provide safe passage in the Wilderness environment. The training for these specialized skills was held in April for about 12 team members. The crew undertook several trail-clearing projects in both Dolly Sods and Otter Creek Wilderness during the spring and summer.
Another training is expected next spring, and the team will no doubt be busy clearing blowdowns from the winter.
Trail Maintenance Team
The Trail Maintenance team was also formed this past spring. Like the Crosscut Sawyers, volunteers will use primitive, non-mechanical tools but address trail conditions affecting the surrounding environment or user safety. This includes providing drainage so that water does not stand on the trail and tempt users to form impactful bypass trails. Trail maintenance in Wilderness is a balancing act of allowing trails to be primitive and not overly developed but still provide user access that has minimal impact on natural conditions.
The team received a two-day training in the spring but has not been able to take on any trail projects this year. The Forest Service determined that a biological assessment and impact analysis was needed to ensure that trail work did not affect the endangered Cheat Mountain Salamander. It is anticipated that another training will be held next spring and that trail work will be undertaken next year.
Even though the busy season at Dolly Sods is winding down for the year, we are busy making plans for the upcoming 2024 season. Here is a sample of some of the new projects we are working on.
The longstanding recommendation that campers and hikers dispose of their human waste in a 6 to 8-inch deep cathole is being questioned by scientific research and resource managers, as it often isn’t implemented correctly and contributes to water contamination. Catholes have always been difficult in Dolly Sods because of the thin, rocky soil. The result has been poorly buried visible human waste on the ground surface, unsightly and unsanitary toilet paper fields around campsites, and potential water contamination.
The long-term trend is toward encouraging the use of “pack it out” methods for handling human waste, which is already required in some sensitive and heavily used natural areas. This is made practical, safe, and sanitary through the use of WAG (“waste alleviating gel”) bags. These allow the user to do their business directly into a wide-mouth bag, seal and enclose it in an outer, tough, puncture-resistant bag, and carry it out. The chemical agent in the bag disinfects the waste and neutralizes odors, and the bag can be disposed of in the trash.
There is an understandable hesitancy among many people toward carrying their poop around in their backpack. To help alleviate that and get people used to this more environmentally friendly way of handling waste, the Wilderness Stewards plans to offer “free samples” of WAG bags at the trailheads during 2024. This will be coupled with a public educational event in the spring with a presentation by a Leave No Trace trainer and a handout for kids and grownups.
The program will be entitled “Leave No Waste: Keep Dolly Sods Clean.”
Given the success of the Trailhead Stewards in educating and guiding visitors about the things they need to know and practice to have a low-impact experience in Dolly Sods, it makes sense for the Stewards to carry the messages into the interior, where the action is.
We are in the process of developing the concepts and operational parameters for a Backcountry Stewards program. This team of specially selected and highly trained Stewards would interact with visitors at the trailheads but would also use “Authority of the Resource” techniques to model and help hikers apply LNT principles and wilderness best practices in real-time.
Backcountry Stewards will also do small-scale trail maintenance and brush clearing, monitor campsite and trail conditions, and report on backcountry conditions and user issues to the Forest Service. They will be equipped to report on urgent situations and emergencies from the backcountry, allowing official response to be quicker and more accurately located.
We are actively consulting with other wilderness stewardship organizations nationwide that have implemented similar programs. Our goal is to complete the planning for this over the winter, hold trainings in the spring, and be able to implement the Backcountry Stewards on the ground in time for the 2024 Dolly Sods busy season.
Web Pages for Dolly Sods Info
In its report on the 2022 LNT Hot Spot event for Dolly Sods, the LNT team noted that there is no single complete and comprehensive source of information about Dolly Sods and how to supports its wilderness character during a visit. They recommended that a central source of information, consolidating the information spread around other sources and emphasizing Leave No Trace practices, be developed. The Conservancy is planning on developing a set of 10 to 12 new web pages, each addressing specific topics about Dolly Sods, to host on its website. Development is planned over this winter.
JOIN US: Would you like to be part of all the exciting activities of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards? We have lots of opportunities for folks with various levels of experience, time availability, and proximity to Dolly Sods. To learn more, visit wvhighlands.org and follow the links for Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards to read more about what we do and access the online signup form. Once you sign up, you will receive more information about opportunities to participate.
Cover photo by David Mong.