Meet the Recipients of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Service Awards

By Olivia Miller

In May, seven volunteers were recognized for their dedication and participation in all of the main projects conducted by the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards in 2022. Frank and Judy O’HaraChris Longe and Elizabeth OlmoDavid MongJill Watkins, and Marjorie McDiarmid distinguished themselves by contributing at least 40 hours of volunteer time to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area. 

The recipients of the service awards were recognized at a training and picnic held at Seneca Rocks earlier this summer, with each receiving a West Virginia Highlands Conservancy HydroFlask. The Highlands Conservancy and United States Forest Service thank them and all of the Wilderness Stewards for their commitment to preserving Dolly Sods Wilderness and adjacent areas.

Frank O’Hara

Frank O’Hara lives nearly an hour from Dolly Sods in Keyser, West Virginia. This will be his third season with the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. During his many hours out traversing the wilderness, O’Hara has been involved with every team of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards: trailhead stewards, crosscut sawyer, solitude monitoring, campsite inventory, and trail maintenance. 

“I believe community service is crucial to supporting and maintaining public lands,” O’Hara said. “The United States Forest Service motto is ‘caring for the land and serving people,’ and this partnership between the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Forest Service certainly fits the motto. The stewardship program upholds service, practicing conservation, strengthening wilderness safety, and welcoming community and diversity. We have a responsibility to protect these public lands because it benefits everyone.

“I often think if it wasn’t for the Highlands Conservancy, and other leaders, Dolly Sods may not be here for us to enjoy,” he continued. “When I was in college, there were two important Highlands Conservancy leaders, Bob Burrell and Helen McGinnis, that were strong advocates for seeking wilderness status across the Mon National Forest. Each generation owes it to the next to pay it forward.”

O’Hara has spent a great deal of time volunteering on the trailhead steward team, which he likes to call the ‘meet and greet’ team—offering a map, answering questions about trail conditions, distances, water sources, campsites, etc. 

“The most fun part is offering to take a picture of the groups either entering or exiting a trailhead,” he said. “There is always a mix, first-time backpacking, family day hikers, and others that are experienced and wishing to test their wilderness spirit.” 

O’Hara has also participated in the crosscut sawyer and trail maintenance workshop with the Forest Service. 

“It was excellent for the take-home skills, but also for understanding the complexity of trail construction and maintenance,” O’Hara said. “It’s a hands-on experience, but you do feel a sense of accomplishment and hard work. I gained a real sense of respect for the young boys of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Roosevelt Tree Amy, who built so many trails and conservation efforts on our public lands.”

Judy O’Hara 

Also from Keyser, West Virginia, Judy O’Hara is in her third year volunteering for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. She has been a part of the trailhead stewards, crosscut sawyer, solitude monitoring, campsite inventory, and trail maintenance teams.

“I love the outdoors,” O’Hara said. “Being a Dolly Sods Wilderness Steward is a way to volunteer and do what I love. I love meeting new people and hearing about where they are from and their experiences in Dolly Sods.”

A portrait of Elizabeth Olmo and Chris Longe

Elizabeth Olmo and Chris Longe

From Mt. Storm, West Virginia, Elizabeth Olmo and Chris Longe have been volunteering with the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards since the program’s inception in 2021 and have been engaged with almost every team. 

“It is part of the mission of my ‘fourth life,’ retired twice, once from the military and once from the civil service,” Olmo said. “I am dedicating my retirement years to conservation and saving our planet, one garden, trail and refuge at a time.

“It isn’t hard to stay motivated,” she continued. “Saving the planet, protecting our sacred wild spaces is a passion. Plus, trying to expose people to the beauty and fragility of nature and our wild places and what we can do to preserve them is something I’ve always done.”

When asked to share a personal highlight from her time volunteering for the program, she recounted talking to a family who wanted to go for a ‘stroll’ in the wilderness area but were unprepared for the experience. 

“We gave recommendations for other parts of the valley that might be a better option for that particular day for them,” Olmo said. “We also made fun suggestions on how to better prepare themselves and their children for a fun experience in the Sods. A month later, they came back! With their maps, better clothing, a good idea of what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go, and with the remembered safety equipment. 

“It was awesome, and they remembered us and thanked us for making sure they would have a safe and enjoyable visit,” she continued.

David Mong sits on a log over Gandy Creek

David Mong

From Clarksburg, West Virginia, David Mong has been a Dolly Sods Wilderness Steward since February 2022. He has been engaged with nearly every team, including assisting with a new training opportunity for trailhead stewards by leading current Stewards along short, guided hikes through different areas of Dolly Sods. 

“I am a long-time volunteer backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Adirondack Mountain Club, and I have been leading backpacking trips to Dolly Sods, among other places, since the 1970s,” Mong said. “I am happy to have a chance to help others experience Dolly Sods by having more fun on their first trip and reducing impact and to support this program to make it successful.”

When asked to share a personal highlight or favorite memory from his time as a Steward, Mong recounted following a social trail to the top of Blackbird Knob with fellow Steward Jill Watkins and confirming there was nothing but woods and “a good reason never to go up there again.” While checking out the social trails, though, he came across interesting campsites he was previously unaware of and plans to return to camp at them in the future. 

A portrait of Jill Watkins

Jill Watkins

From Charleston, West Virginia, Jill Watkins has been a Dolly Sods Wilderness Steward since August 2022 as part of the campsite inventory team. 

“I’ve been hiking in Dolly Sods and the Canaan Valley area since I was little,” Watkins said. “As an environmentalist at heart, I felt it was important for me to give back to one of the most beautiful parts of the state. I hope what we are doing helps show visitors how to better care for the environment and to understand what their impact truly is. I also hope that the more people visit wilderness areas like Dolly Sods, the more they will want to protect the natural world we all share.”

During her time as a Steward, Watkins recounts coming upon smoldering campfires that people have left behind more often over the last few years. “The thought of closing down some of the more problematic campsites makes me feel good about the work,” she said. “It was really disheartening to see how many live trees had been cut down at several campsites, too.”

Marjorie McDirmaid stands beside a sign at Dolly Sods Wilderness Area

Marjorie McDiarmid

Marjorie McDiarmid lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, and has been a Dolly Sods Wilderness Steward for two years. She has been a part of the trailhead steward, solitude monitoring and campsite inventory teams.

“I have come to the Sods for many years,” McDiarmid said. “Mostly, I do night photography because it is one of the best dark sky locations on the East Coast. I became concerned about overuse and wanted to help. I really enjoy the solitude hikes and figuring out campsite locations.”

Learn more about the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards here