The First Season of Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards
Part 3: The Seeds of Popularity
By Dave Johnston
In the first two parts of this article, which is based on the presentation I made at the WVHC Fall Review, we looked at the provisions of the Wilderness Act of 1964 as they relate to the values of “wilderness character”, how the Dolly Sods Wilderness was officially created under those principles, and at how wilderness designation has protected Dolly Sods. In this installment I want to look at how the success of Dolly Sods has led to new challenges to its wilderness character, in the form of dramatically increased visitation.
In a future article I’ll discuss the observed impacts of this popularity, how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards responded to those threats, what we have learned from our first season, and what is planned for the future.
What makes Dolly Sods attractive?
In many ways, Dolly Sods, and the challenges it faces, serves as a model for wilderness areas in the eastern United States. Like most wilderness, Dolly Sods contains areas of exceptional natural beauty. It has been purposely set aside as an area for natural processes to take place, with minimal human interference or evidence of human occupation. It provides an opportunity for a more primitive outdoor experience
But unlike the vast wilderness areas of the west, Dolly Sods is relatively small, at just 17,776 acres. The average size of western wilderness areas (excluding Alaska) is about 82,000 acres, while the average of eastern wilderness (excluding Florida) is only about 13,000 acres. That means that people who come to appreciate it are likely to be concentrated in a more limited area, and an increase in visitation will have greater impact.
Also unlike many western wilderness, but like many in the east, Dolly Sods is relatively close to large population centers. It has relatively easy access, with four-lane highways approaching the area from both the east and the west, and a good network of state roads. The potholes of FR75 notwithstanding, Dolly Sods is easy to get to for a large number of people. And once here, the road delivers them literally to the edge of the wilderness. Few wilderness areas have a road running along 11 miles of their perimeter, with seven separate trailheads.
So it should not be a surprise that Dolly Sods has become the focus of intense visitor use, as have many other eastern wilderness areas. But it is useful to take a closer look at some of the factors that have affected this for Dolly Sods in particular.
It is an understatement to say that the Dolly Sods area has experienced explosive growth in visitation during the past few years. Helen McGinnis’ observation, in 1971, that “In the last 15 years the area has been discovered by more and more people seeking recreational relief, many of them from out of state urban regions” seems both prescient and quaint.
Unfortunately, we don’t have hard data on previous levels of usage in the nearly 50 years since Dolly Sods was designated a wilderness. It is not known whether the Forest Service ever recorded overall levels of visitation to the wilderness or its surrounding areas. They did, for some period, have trailhead registration boxes, but was not able to maintain them, and any data collected from them would be hard to unearth, and may be of suspect quality anyway.
Only now, with the inception of new registration boxes to be maintained by the Wilderness Stewards, will we begin to get a quantitative idea of the levels of visitation. That will no doubt be useful in previous years, but for now the assessment of trends in visitation can only be qualitative and anecdotal.
It has become kind of axiomatic that this increased visitation is driven by social media. But that is probably only partly true. This has unquestionably been a long-term trend; people have been noticing (and complaining about) the influx of visitors for at least several decades, long before social media. The first edition of the WVHC’s Monongahela National Forest Hiking guide was produced partly to draw attention away from Dolly Sods and the other new wilderness areas, out of concern that the publicity surrounding their creation was drawing too many visitors.
Traditional media, including newspaper and magazine stories, tourist publications and guidebooks, as well as old-fashioned word of mouth have all contributed to a steady rise in visitation levels. Dolly Sods has been on the radar screen for a long time, and would have been increasingly popular even without social media.
Still, there is little question that social media has contributed greatly, and no doubt accelerated existing trends. Individual postings of images and glowing reports of experiences on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter increase awareness and a desire to visit for oneself. So do promotional messages broadcast to newsfeeds, such as those from WVTourism.
One aspect of social media should not be underestimated: it gives casual observers the ability to see what other people like them have done and the opportunity to ask questions. This provides a greater comfort level for people who may otherwise be unsure of “how” to visit a remote area. People who might otherwise be hesitant to visit a “wild” area are reassured and emboldened by the demystification of wilderness. I think that this aspect itself detracts from the sense of adventure and discovery that should be part of the wilderness experience.
Just Getting Out
The icing on the cake has been the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, where people sought a way to get out of the house for a relatively safe outdoor respite. The past two years have seen unprecedented number of visitors, both on the road and in the backcountry.
The proximity of Bear Rocks Preserve and other tourist destinations to Dolly Sods has to be factored in. Bear Rocks has probably outpaced Dolly Sods in popularity, to the point where it has become merged in peoples’ minds as synonymous with Dolly Sods. Often when people refer to Dolly Sods they actually mean Bear Rocks.
Unquestionably, much of the major traffic issue on FR 75 is caused by people visiting or driving to Bear Rocks Preserve. Some of those people also stop in for a hike at the actual Dolly Sods, which is one reason that the Bear Rocks trailhead is by far the most popular entry point to the wilderness. Similarly, the presence of many other tourist destinations in the area, from Canaan Valley and the state parks to Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob, make Dolly Sods one of the must-go stops on a vacation tour. One wonders whether the crush would be so great if Dolly Sods were the only natural area in the region.
Is Wilderness Its Own Enemy?
It is sometimes suggested that the Wilderness designation itself was a major stimulus for the popularity of Dolly Sods. As with social media, there is no doubt some truth to that. In the 1970s WVHC noted that the publicity surrounding the fight to have Dolly Sods and Otter Creek set aside as wilderness, and the news of their designation by Congress, made them household names, at least in West Virginia. In 2009, when Dolly Sods North was added to the wilderness, the news resulted in a rash of articles in outdoor, nature and photography magazines and websites, with many devoting articles to “first visits” of the new wilderness.
However, the designation did not result in an equivalent surge in visitors at other wilderness areas, including Otter Creek, which was designated at the same time and also expanded in 2009. Other West Virginia wilderness areas, even those that are accessible and close to other tourist attractions, see only a fraction of the visitation at Dolly Sods. Wilderness designation itself doesn’t lead to obsessive popularity.
Clearly all wildernesses are special places, but it is probably the particular characteristics of the individual places that tend to attract the biggest crowds. As more people visit them and pass along the word, their growth tends to outpace that of less distinctive wilderness areas. Dolly Sods, together with Bear Rocks, probably tend to provoke a stronger reaction than most wilderness, and the enthusiasm gets passed along. Coupled with the accessibility and other factors mentioned above, their popularity skyrockets.
Indeed, I suspect the wilderness designation of Dolly Sods has become secondary; few people come there seeking a wilderness experience. Rather, they want to immerse themselves in the wonders they heard about from their neighbors or social media, and the area may just as well be a theme park as a wilderness.
At the same time, it must be pointed out that designation of an area as a wilderness also provides more tools for managing the area, both administrative and educational. Land managers are supposed to proactively monitor the “wilderness character” status of the areas and take steps to preserve that character. Unlike general forest areas, this is specifically mandated by an Act of Congress.
The status of an area as wilderness can provide a basis for prescriptions, restrictions and limitations on visitation and activities in the wilderness that would not be available, or would be harder to sell, in any other part of the Forest. Activities that would be undesirable in any forest can be preemptively prohibited under the authority of the Wilderness Act. This can include limitations on the volume of visitations itself. Though this is never the first choice for a wilderness manager, it is in the toolkit.
Wilderness designation also provides an opportunity for more proactive education and persuasion of visitors to abide by wilderness-friendly behavior. Leave No Trace principles are applicable and important anywhere, but they take on more weight and urgency in a wilderness. Certain activities, such as standing wood collection and campfires, building of ad hoc structures, and flying of drones and other low-flying aircraft, can be more actively discouraged, even if they are not explicitly illegal.
Regardless of the reasons, a large influx of visitors, particularly those who are inexperienced with or underappreciative of the unique nature of wilderness, has impacts which challenge the character of wilderness. We’ll look at how those have affected Dolly Sods in the next installment.
Meanwhile, to learn more about the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards and to join up, go to https://bit.ly/3pBjiyV.