Supporting the Wilderness Climate:

The First Season of Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards

Part 4: Impact and Response

By Dave Johnston

In the first three 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, how wilderness designation has protected Dolly Sods, and the sources of the increased popularity of Dolly Sods. In this installment I want to look at the impacts of increased visitation at Dolly Sods and how those can be addressed.

In a future article I’ll discuss how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards was organized to respond to those threats, what we have learned from our first season, and what is planned for the future.

Carrying Capacity

It would be useful to look back at the first installment of this series, where the concepts of wilderness described in the Wilderness Act were described. The Statement of Policy for the Act states that wilderness areas are to be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.” One of the key objectives of wilderness is that it be available for people to experience, but at the same time it must by preserved so that the experience is of a wilderness. 

Every wilderness, and each part of a wilderness, has a maximum carrying capacity, the highest number of visitors that can be accommodated without unacceptable degradation of the resource or visitor experience. There is a science of visitor use management utilized by land managers to assess the levels and thresholds excessive impact and tie them to usage levels. That would make a worthy topic for another article. But for now, suffice it to say that one of the objectives of the Wilderness Stewards is to provide the data on usage and impacts that the Forest Service can use to make informed visitor use management decisions.

It needs to be stipulated that everyone, even the best intentioned among us, has impact when we visit the wilderness. Every visit by a human has some impact, even by those who are sensitive, careful, experienced, and skilled in backcountry practices. The carrying capacity of an area can be either optimized or diminished by the choices of those visiting. 

So the goal of visitor use management is, first and foremost, to promote attitudes and behaviors that tend to be compatible and supportive of wilderness character. Conversely, effective visitor use management also involves identifying the patterns of behavior that tend to have the greatest negative impact, and take steps to minimize their occurrence. Steps to directly limit the number of visitors are available, but normally only instituted when other options have been exhausted.

So one of the key roles that the Wilderness Stewards play is to appeal to the best intentions of most visitors, and try to provide then with the information or motivation (or both) to minimize their impact in the wilderness. Using authority-of-the-resource techniques and drawing on Leave No Trace principles, volunteers work in key messages designed to anticipate choices visitors will need to make affecting some of the greatest areas of impact at Dolly Sods. This effort is part of a strategy to make outright restrictions on visitation unnecessary.

Here are examples of some of the visitor impacts observed in Dolly Sods and how the Wilderness Stewards attempt to preemptively address them:

Degradation of trails and surrounding area

Trails in Dolly Sods are frequently severely eroded and muddy. People tend to try to avoid the mud, resulting in ever-expanding trail width and bypass trails, extending into adjacent wetlands. Sometimes unofficial trails look similar to the real trail, leading unwary hikers astray, sometimes becoming lost.

Message: As a wilderness, Dolly Sods is more primitive than other areas, and invites a more primitive experience. Please stay on trails, even through the mud, to avoid damage to natural areas. We wary of side trails, and if you find yourself on a disappearing trail, turn around and go back the way you came.

Note: This does not eliminate the need for overdue maintenance and remedial repair and relocation of trails in Dolly Sods. It is just something people can do to avoid making things worse.

Proliferation of campsites

The number of campsites is in Dolly Sod has expanded greatly; there may be more than 300. Some are in inappropriate locations such as right next to the trail, and some areas have large number of sites in in close proximity, creating “neighborhoods”.

Message: Camping areas have the most impact of any human activity in the wilderness, and one of the reasons people go to wilderness is for the solitude and the experience of nature without distraction. To minimize impact, use an existing campsite rather than making a new one. Enhance your solitude as well as that of others by using sites that are away from other sites. 

Note: Concurrently, the Stewards are working with the Forest Service to survey and assess the number of campsites and the level of impact of each. This may help with elimination of excess or inappropriate sites.

Firewood impacts

The number of campsites, their occupancy rate, and concentrations have resulted in severe depletion of dead and down wood for campfires in some areas. Many campsites are scarred with trees felled for firewood, and some areas host virtual stumptowns. There have been cases of fire spread or near escapes in Dolly Sods.

Message: In a healthy forest all trees, including standing dead ones, and even dead and down wood, play important roles in supporting wildlife and natural processes. Especially in heavily used areas, consider not having a campfire, and if you must, range far from the campsite to avoid concentrated depletion of wood on the ground. Never cut anything standing, not even branches. Burn only in an established fire ring, and keep fires small and controlled, and fully extinguished before leaving.

Note: Some heavily impacted areas have instituted bans or limitations on campfires, especially where there is vulnerability to wildfire. Unless current impact is limited, this is not out of the question for Dolly Sods.

Inappropriate structures

Increasingly, visitors have been leaving monuments to their presence, such as gratuitous rock stacks, carved log “totems”, and outright defacement of trees and rocks. Campsite “furniture” such as benches, chairs and even tables made from rock slabs dislodged from streams are proliferating.

Message: Aquatic and terrestrial wildlife depend on naturally distributed rocks in streambeds, talus fields, and embedded in the ground. Disturbing their habitat leaves them vulnerable to predation or exposure to stressful conditions and may affect their ability to reproduce; they do not necessarily adjust or recover easily. In addition, one of the key values of wilderness is that it is as free as possible of human structures and other evidence of human intervention. Both for the sake of wildlife and for our enjoyment of wilderness, don’t purposely disturb rocks or construct unnecessary structures.

Note: Though they are inconsistent with wilderness, human-made structures can themselves become home to creatures. The Forest Service recommends not peremptorily disassembling them without consulting with their officials first.

Trash and poor hygiene

Lots of trash along trails has not been a big problem at Dolly Sods. But campsites do tend to suffer from leftover trash, abandoned gear, and fields of toilet paper flowers. 

Message: Litter is always unsightly no matter where it is left. But trash left in campsites invites critters to identify them as potential sources of food, which can lead to unfavorable conflicts with humans. “Organic” waste such as orange and banana peels does not readily degrade in this environment and is attractive to animals. Human waste and toilet paper near campsites is obviously objectionable and rude to other visitors. Pack out all wrappers, containers, and leftovers. Do your business well away from the campsite, use a cathole to bury waste and toilet paper, and leave your site inviting for the next person.

Drone and low-flying aircraft overflights

The rapid growth in popularity of drones has fed a large increase in their use in the airspace over Dolly Sods and other wilderness. Ultralight aircraft and motorized gliders have been observed flying low over the wilderness. 

Message: The Wilderness Act and Forest Service regulations specifically prohibit landing or operation of aircraft within wilderness, so those activities are simply illegal. But beyond mere legality, it is clear that operation of motorized or mechanical transport in a manner that impacts the natural area is not compatible with the meaning and goals of wilderness. In addition to the potential disturbance of wildlife, wilderness is supposed to be free of the motorized cacophony of civilization, and be as free as possible of the evidence of human control and dominance of nature. Motorized aircraft intrude on the wilderness experience of other visitors and mock the very purpose wilderness. Aircraft operators, whether subject to a citation or not, are encouraged to treat wilderness as a “place apart” and refrain from imposing their hobby on a place it just doesn’t belong.

Parking and traffic

Dolly Sods is bounded on 11 miles of its perimeter by forest roads that see increased levels of traffic and, at certain points, a need for parking that far exceeds capacity. The roads often have traffic jams and become eroded and potholed from overuse, and visitors resort to parking in ways that impede traffic or head out into adjacent meadows.

Message: While this doesn’t happen “in” the wilderness it nevertheless affects it, both the land and the wilderness experience. Visitors arrive at the doorstep of the wilderness confronted with urban-like traffic that is likely worse than what they deal with at home, and start their experience aggravated and on edge. The situation is akin to having to fight for a parking space at their city park during a festival, rather than an introduction to the natural qualities and calm of wilderness. This inevitably affects their attitude toward wilderness, and diminishes their ability to recognize it as a place of special attributes needing special protection. It erodes the likelihood that they will treat it as wilderness once they enter. This makes the front country traffic snarl also one of the more fundamental threats to the wilderness character of Dolly Sods.

The above issues are just a sampling of the impacts of increased visitor usage at Dolly Sods. The first line of defense, so to speak, is to influence visitor awareness, attitudes and behaviors toward those that are compatible with and supportive of wilderness. The Wilderness Act allows for more direct forms of management to fulfill its mandate to preserve wilderness character, but it also places a high value on the opportunity for a “primitive and unconfined type of recreation”. “Unconfined” in this context means with minimal restriction, control or intrusion on visitor activities. Thus the goal of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards is to make enough of a difference in user practices that its wilderness character can be restored and preserved without the need to resort to more intrusive measures.

If you would like to be part of making a difference at Dolly Sods please consider joining us! We will be forming new teams of volunteers this spring and are targeting mid-May for our next orientation and training. For more information and to join, go to