The First Season of Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards
Part 5: The Stewards Step Up
By Dave Johnston
In the first four 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”, the history of Dolly Sods as a wilderness, and the impacts that growing visitation has had. In this installment we will look at how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards was formed, what we do, and what we learned from the first season of experience.
In a future article we’ll look at what Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards has planned for the future.
The surge in visitation to Dolly Sods that accompanied the onset of the pandemic in the summer and fall of 2020 did not go unnoticed within WVHC. The usage of the wilderness, and associated impacts, had been steadily increasing over the previous decade and was already a concern to many. The traffic jams at some trailheads, crowding of many trails, and increasing trail and campsite degradation spurred thoughts of “someone should do something about this”. After discussions, the WVHC Public Lands Committee decided to do something about it.
Members of the committee reached out to the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) and asked what we could do as volunteers to support the Forest Service’s mission to preserve and enhance the wilderness character if Dolly Sods. The Forest Service enthusiastically welcomed out interest. Over the course of several weeks in the spring of 2021 we worked out a set of volunteer activities that would supplement the work being done by the Forest Service, and also provide them with data they can use to better target management of the wilderness.
The plan was shared with the Public Lands Committee and the WVHC Board, and approved subject to conditions related to WVHC being able to access and analyze some of the data. WVHC and the USDA Forest Service entered into a partnership agreement, and in June 2021 the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards was born.
There were five elements in the original plan, one of which has been put on hold and another added.
Trailhead Registration Boxes: WVHC purchased the materials for the MNF to construct a registration box for all seven of the trailheads along Forest Roads 19 and 75, and volunteers are checking the boxes regularly to collect registration sheets, replenish supplies, and maintain the boxes. WVHC enters the non-personal data into a spreadsheet and delivers it and the original sheets to the MNF.
Wilderness Trailhead Stewards: The centerpiece of the Wilderness Stewards project, the Trailhead Stewards greet visitors at trailheads and help them understand the wilderness and plan a successful visit. In the process we work in messages about Leave No Trace principles, preparation and appropriate practices in Dolly Sods. Stewards provide maps, route advice and warnings about weather and trail conditions for those not prepared.
Campsite Inventory: New campsites have proliferated in Dolly Sods over the last few years, and they are having more impact. Volunteer teams will hike the trails and identify the location of all campsites, record their dimensions, associated social trails, proximity to other sites, and observe the level of impact. The MNF can use this data to remediate unacceptable sites and devise visitor use management strategies.
Trail Maintenance: Many of the trails in Dolly Sods are muddy, eroded and unpleasant for hikers, but more importantly for a wilderness, poorly designed and maintained trails have an increasingly negative impact on the natural environment surrounding them. Teams of Wilderness Stewards will work under the direction of MNF staff to promote natural drainage, construct walking surfaces over wetlands, reroute or harden trails so that visitors are encouraged to stay on trails and reduce their impact.
Traffic monitoring: Originally conceived as a way for Stewards to provide car counts and monitor parking conditions, this element has been put on hold. However, traffic issues unquestionably affect wilderness character, so the Stewards will stay engaged with the MNF on way to address the problems.
Solitude Monitoring: Though not a part of the original plan, this fits in well with the Wilderness Act, which calls out “outstanding opportunities for solitude” among the values of wilderness character. Volunteers hike specified trails for a period of four hours and record the number of encounters with other hikers and campers. The MNF uses the data to assess achievement of this wilderness value.
Observation, Learnings, and Numbers
The Wilderness Stewards were active from early July until the end of the year. An initial group of Trailhead Stewards assembled for a training by MNF staff and then hit the trailheads every weekend through mid-November. Registration sheets were picked up sometimes as often as twice per week during the busiest period. Teams of solitude monitors walked tens of miles of trails during September and October. And a special crew of volunteers conducted a preliminary survey of campsites along popular trails in preparation for a full-scale inventory this year.
Here are some of the things we observed, recorded, and counted during our first season:
Registration Boxes: The registration boxes were put in place by the Forest Service in mid-September. During the first month a total of 1200 parties registered, including about 3000 people and 36 dogs; the average party size was about 2.5 people. Backpackers and day hikers were split about 50:50. The backpackers were planning on spending an average of 1.7 nights on their trip. About 40% of all people entered the wilderness at one trailhead: Bear Rocks. Blackbird Knob and Red Creek were the next closest at about 17% each.
By the end of the year about 2000 parties, and 5000 people, had ventured into the backcountry. For the most part the averages above held, though there was a slight increase in the proportion of day hikers during the cooler months at the end of the year. Even after the gates closed on FR 19 and 75, we have continued to maintain and collect registrations at Red Creek, the remaining trailhead accessible by car. During the winter we have had about 155 parties and 369 people register for a wilderness hike.
Keep in mind that these numbers represent only those who voluntarily registered. We estimate that somewhere around 50% of actual visitors register, so the true numbers may be around twice those reported above. This also does not include those who entered at the FR80 trailhead through the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge or through the private Timberline development. And finally, it does not include those who visited the general area without going into the wilderness, particularly those who didn’t go further than Bear Rock Preserve or the viewpoints, natural trails and picnic area along the Forest Roads.
It is too soon to draw broad conclusions about visitation levels at Dolly Sods; we will need at least a year of data before that can begin. Also, the Forest Service does not have equivalent data from previous years, so we cannot identify trends. But the numbers do nothing to discount the subjective impression that Dolly Sods is hosting a lot of people.
Trailhead Stewards: The Stewards have garnered a lot of attention since their inception, both from the positive reaction of visitors and in media coverage. While we did not expect a negative reception, we have been surprised and gratified by how receptive visitors have been to our key messages and how enthusiastic most have been about the assistance we give.
During the busiest season of the summer through the end of October we interacted with approximately 1500 people, covering the three most popular trailheads during the busiest times of weekend and holidays. Trailhead Stewards put in about 370 volunteer hours.
We found our most common conversations revolved around helping people plan a hike for their available time and hiking ability, and what they wanted to see and experience. We referred a significant number of people to Bear Rocks Preserve, the Northland Loop Nature Trail, or to other trailheads if they really were not ready for a wilderness experience. Many people arrived at Dolly Sods unprepared for the highland weather or primitive trail conditions, and we helped them prepare for what they were about to face.
While we aren’t under any illusions that these trailhead interactions will turn around the impacts of heavy visitation and poor backcountry behavior, we do think that we have encouraged a greater awareness and appreciation for the unique qualities and challenges present by a wilderness. Many people for whom a city park or drive-in campground has been their wildest experience are at least a bit better prepared to follow the Leave No Trace principles and special wilderness considerations. Even those with experience have been reminded of the importance of hiking gently and minimizing the impact of their camping practices. The Trailhead Stewards are no magic bullet or quick fix, but are at least part of the puzzle of preserving wilderness character in Dolly Sods.
During 2022 we will be expanding the presence of the Trailhead Stewards to cover more locations for a greater percentage of the busy times. Look for more information elsewhere in this issue or at the WVHC website.
Solitude Monitoring: A team of solitude monitors set out in pairs during late September and early October and completed 13 surveys. Three trails representing Very High, High and Moderate usage levels were hiked twice on weekdays and twice on weekends for four hours out and back, or about eight miles. Not surprisingly, a large number of encounters was recorded.
The largest frequency of encounters was recorded on weekends on the Bear Rocks trail. During one survey, the monitors recorded 139 people during their four hour hike, an average of 29.5 people per hour! But even averaging the weekend and weekday encounters, the average rate for the Bear Rocks trail was about 19 encounters per hour.
For comparison, the overall average encounters in the High Use (the Big Stonecoal Trail) zone was about 6 people per hour. For the Moderate use zone, the Wildlife and Rohrbaugh Plains trails, the overall average was about 5 people per hour. The overall average number of people encountered in Dolly Sods was about 10 per hour
Because the Forest Service does not have results of previous surveys of this type, it isn’t possible to determine how this compares with past visitation levels. But it should be possible to compare the absolute numbers against benchmarks for what is considered a reasonable “opportunity for solitude”. The program is expecting to do ongoing monitoring during each of the seasons next year, and periodically through coming years, so it should be possible to begin to see trends.
Campsite Inventory: Full-scale implementation of the campsite surveys was not implemented last year, but is planned to be a major effort starting in the summer of 2022. However, during late November and early December several volunteers did informal surveys of the number and location of campsites along several trails. Using their phone GPS they recorded waypoints for each campsite they encountered near a trail, which were then transferred to GPS mapping software and spreadsheets. We covered about half of the trails in Dolly Sods, and reported nearly 150 campsites, so there may be as many as 300 throughout the full wilderness. This information will help us schedule and plan routes once the full inventory is begun.
Trail Maintenance: Because of the need for careful consideration of the impact of trail work in the wilderness, the Forest Service was not able prescribe the needed remedial trail work last year. However, many trouble spots continue to adversely affect the natural environment, and we hope to at least work with the MNF to address the worst areas during 2022.
Next month I will go into detail on the ambitious plans we are developing for each of these projects during 2022; it will be a busy and exciting year!
However, I want to give advance notice of one of them: we are looking to greatly expand the presence and visibility of the Trailhead Stewards. Stewards will have new outerwear to identify and help them stand out at the trailheads, and will have new resources at their fingertips to respond to the needs of visitors. We will be making a push to expand the number of volunteers so we can cover more of the trailheads more of the time. A press release sent to local and statewide media in late March is already generating a rush of new volunteers.
We will kick off the season in mid-May with a combination of an in-person training for new Stewards and a picnic for all Stewards; this will be a great opportunity to network and share experiences with fellow lovers of Dolly Sods and help with the orientation of new Stewards.
If you would like to be part of making a difference at Dolly Sods please consider joining us! For more information and to join, go to https://bit.ly/3pBjiyV.