By Dave Johnston
The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards are springing into the summer busy season at West Virginia’s most popular wilderness. Here is a recap of activities during June and plans for the summer.
During May we held a training for about 30 new Trailhead Stewards, and hosted a picnic get-together for all Stewards. The three-hour training gave new Stewards a thorough grounding the historic and natural background of Dolly Sods, its relationship with surrounding natural areas, and the issues confronting its wilderness character. Trainees also gained from the previous year of experience at the trailheads, with experienced Stewards sharing their learnings and techniques for engaging visitors and passing along vital information in a short conversation.
But the classroom training is not the end. In order to complete their training, new Stewards meet up with an experienced Steward at a trailhead. There they have a chance to observe the veteran in action, and how he or she initiates and sustains an engagement, while working in key messages about wilderness stewardship. The new Steward then gets a change to try it, and get critiques, tips and suggestions from the veteran. They come away not only with a feel for the methods and messages we use, but with confidence they will use to when they take a trailhead on their own.
During late May and June, ten new Trailhead Stewards were brought into the fold, and are now qualified to sign up for trailhead duty on their own and with other Stewards. This gives a much-needed boost to our presence at trailheads during the busy summer season. The new Stewards have begun to pick up the enthusiasm and “vibe” that we get from visitors, especially those new to visiting a wilderness, and the appreciation we get from helping them be prepared for a positive wilderness experience. Here’s a comment that Becca, one of the new Stewards, left on the Wilderness Stewards Facebook page after venturing into the wilderness on her own hike:
We arrived Saturday to enter at Bear Rocks Trailhead where we were greeted by none other than our own Dave Johnston and another fellow new steward, Haley, working a trailhead shift. They were quite busy as Saturday was a nice sunny day for the Sods but what really brought me joy was chatting to two separate groups on the trails who, unprompted, shared their appreciation for Dave and Haley’s advice and guidance for their day’s adventure. One group even going as far to say that they were certain they wouldn’t have had as nice of an experience without some of the tips they received.
With the continuing impact of high visitation to Dolly Sods, sometimes we wonder if our efforts are making a difference, and hearing about people voluntarily expressing their appreciation is very reinforcing!
[Photo: Frank and Judy O’Hara help a Dolly Sods visitor plan a route.]
In order to enhance our visibility and perceived credibility at the trailheads we have obtained spiffy multipocket vests for the Trailhead Stewards to wear. These are in forest green and have been embroidered with a new Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards logo, based on the WVHC spruce, cliff and rising sun logo. They are thin enough to wear in warm weather but can be worn over additional layers on cold and windy days at Bear Rocks.
We finally received our vests in early June and had them embroidered. We are now distributing them as Stewards come to the trailheads. New Stewards receive one as sort of a “diploma” when they arrive to complete their trailhead training.
Not only do these impart a feeling of pride and identity among the Stewards, but we hope these vests will also advance the “branding” of WVHC Wilderness Stewards program and increase recognition and respect for the work we do.
[Photos (2): Dave Johnston models a new Wilderness Stewards vest and shows off the new embroidered logo.]
As reported in last month’s Voice, we are looking to expand last year’s successful solitude monitoring surveys to use a more advanced, statistically-valid approach this year. Solitude monitoring addresses one of the key elements of wilderness character, an “opportunity for solitude”. By hiking designated trails for a specified period of time and recording the number of encounters with other hikers and campers, volunteers can provide the Forest Service with important information used to assess the status of a wilderness in meeting that goal.
Last year’s effort followed a “convenience” model, where trails were hiked at a time chosen by the volunteer, on both weekends and weekdays. While this approach provides a useful qualitative indication of the level of solitude, it cannot be used for statistical analysis for comparison of trends over time. The “enhanced” protocol requires more surveys, that survey dates be randomly chosen, and conducted using a more specific and consistent procedure. This will provide the Forest Service with a more robust picture of the opportunity for solitude in Dolly Sods, and allow for tracking of trends from future surveys.
To date, the form and data collection standards have been developed and are undergoing review. We expect to have a training in mid-July and perform surveys over a several-week period during the summer.
Also as reported last month, we are planning on an extensive and ambitious project to inventory all of the campsites near trails in Dolly Sods. This will require hiking designated trails and stopping at each observed campsite to record detailed observations about its location, size, appropriateness, and level of impact. The Forest Service can then use this information to gauge the overall degree of camping impact in the wilderness, and identify specific sites or “communities” for remediation.
Currently the Forest Service is revising the existing recreation site monitoring protocol to best meet the needs for assessing backcountry campsites in Dolly Sods. A call for volunteers and training is expected later this summer, with the surveying effort conducted later in the year. Once this gets going, we will make more announcements.
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.