By Dave Johnston
In the first five 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. Last month we looked at how the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards was formed, what we do, and what we learned from the first season of experience.
This month, as we begin to head into the next “open season” at Dolly Sods, I want to cover our immediate plans, things we expect to implement over the summer, and ways that you can get involved.
Wilderness Trailhead Stewards
The Trailhead Stewards are undoubtedly the most visible of our activities, and arguably the one that has the most direct effect on the people whose choices affect the wilderness character of Dolly Sods. Trailhead Stewards engage with visitors setting out on a hike and serve as a resource for what they need to know about Dolly Sods and experiencing the wilderness.
We need more Trailhead Stewards volunteers. Last year we were able to cover the three busiest of the eight Dolly Sods trailheads about 1/3 of the time on weekends. This year we want to cover at least those three trailheads for all or most of weekends and holidays. To do that we need a large cadre of people, each of whom can spend just a little of their time at the trailheads.
Being a Trailhead Steward is easy and fun. There is no minimum time commitment, and you can sign up for your preferred trailhead and time slot (usually three hours) using a convenient online form. You get to chat with people who share your interest in Dolly Sods, and pass on advice that will help them have an enjoyable visit, consistent with wilderness values. Visitors are uniformly receptive, and even enthusiastic, about having a knowledgeable resource at the trailhead.
WVHC and the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) provide the training, which covers the history, character, and challenges of Dolly Sods, the “key message” we want to communicate to visitors, and techniques for engaging people. The next in-person training is scheduled for May 15 at the Seneca Rocks Discovery Center. The training will be immediately followed by a picnic for all Wilderness Stewards, with food provided by WVHC.
To complete the training, new Stewards meet up with an experienced Trailhead Steward at a trailhead for a shift. You’ll have an opportunity to watch the Steward interact with visitors and see how they work in the key messages, ask questions and get tips, and start working with visitors yourself. The session is usually about three hours, and we will work with you to coordinate the schedule for the meetup. After that you will be free to schedule yourself for trailhead coverage at your convenience, using our online system.
In order to make the Trailhead Stewards more identifiable at the trailheads and reinforce the “authority of the resource”, this year we will be providing a nice multi-pocket vest to the Stewards. The vest will have an embroidered patch with a new logo combining the WVHC logo and “Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards”, and it may also have a patch signifying our partnership with the Forest Service. The vest can be worn either over light summer clothing or heavier layers for colder weather.
We will also have an enhanced set of maps for the Stewards to use at the trailheads. We hand out Dolly Sods trail maps for those who came unprepared; paper for casual hikers and a waterproof version for backpackers. Because we get a lot of questions about the best route to get home or back to “civilization”, we have prepared an area map showing the main roads heading to destinations in all directions.
Being a Trailhead Steward gives you an opportunity to make a real, tangible difference in helping maintain the wilderness character of Dolly Sods. We’d love to have you join the team. To sign up or for more information, go to the WVHC website (wvhighlands.org) and click on the link for “Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards Program”.
In order to get an idea of how many people are visiting the Dolly Sods backcountry, last year the MNF placed voluntary registration boxes at seven of the trailheads. WVHC provided the materials used for the boxes, and the Wilderness Stewards continue to maintain them by picking up used sheets, replenishing supplies, and noting needed maintenance. WVHC also enters the sign-in data into a spreadsheet and provides that and the original sheet to the Forest Service.
Although we estimate that only about 50% of visitors register, last year about 2000 parties and 5000 individual visitors were recorded just over a three-month period in the fall. We will continue to monitor these boxes in the upcoming season. The MNF plans to install additional boxes at the remaining Dolly Sods trailhead on Forest Road 80, as well as at the adjacent Roaring Plains West Wilderness Trailheads. Once again WVHC will provide the materials and the Wilderness Stewards will monitor them.
We currently have the “paper route” of all trailhead boxes covered, but volunteers who live nearby would be welcome as fill-ins and to take over the new boxes.
One of the key values of wilderness is an “opportunity for solitude” and the managing agency is required to account for the status of that in its oversight of wilderness. The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards is assisting the MNF in that by conducting regular surveys of backcountry trails. Using standardized methodology and forms, pairs of volunteers hike specified trails for a specified amount of time and record the number of other hikers and campers they encounter along the way. The data is used to compare against wilderness benchmarks and detect trends over time.
Last year we did one round of monitoring in the fall. This year we plan on doing this three times, in spring, summer and fall, and use a slightly more enhanced method that provides better statistical validity. We will start organizing Stewards who are interested in participating in this in May. You do not need to be a Trailhead Steward in order to participate in this, and a training will be provided. To get involved, fill out the Wilderness Stewards sign-up form on the WVHC website and check the box for “Solitude Monitoring”.
As with solitude monitoring, the managing agency for wilderness is required to monitor the status of recreational sites within the wilderness on a regular basis. The Wilderness Stewards will be assisting with this by doing thorough surveys of campsites found in Dolly Sods.
Last year we did an informal survey of the number and location of campsite along about half of the trails. We reported about 150 individual sites, some of them grouped together in virtual “neighborhoods” and others separate. Many of them had evidence of disturbance such as felled or damaged trees and inappropriate “camp furniture” made of rocks uprooted and transported from other places. Our job will be to identify and catalog all of the sites in Dolly Sods, and make measurements and observations about their size, proximity to other sites, and degree of impact.
This will be a major undertaking, as there may be about 300 sites in Dolly Sods. We will need volunteers who are patient, tuned into details, and willing to follow the procedure developed by us and the Forest Service for the project. A separate training will be held with some practice sessions. The good news is you will get to hike and have an opportunity to help us address one the more pressing issues confronting the wilderness.
To get involved, fill out the Wilderness Stewards sign-up form on the WVHC website and check the box for “Campsite Inventory”.
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.
We would like to keep a group of volunteers who are interested in trail maintenance “on standby” for when the Forest Service is ready for us to take on some trail work. So if you have experience or interest in this, please go to the WVHC website and use the sign-up form, and check the box for “Trail Maintenance”.