By Ana Siegel, SJMA Wilderness Crew Member
For the last two months, my office has been the burn zones, alpine vistas, cow-filled meadows, and log-strewn trails of the Weminuche Wilderness. As a member of the San Juan Mountains Association’s Wilderness Crew, I have the privilege of spending my work week immersing myself in, and helping to protect, this beautiful and unique landscape.
To understand the work we do, it is necessary to grasp the goals of the 1964 Wilderness Act: “Wilderness should 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, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness.”
Our aim as the Wilderness Crew is to facilitate the balance between easing visitor access to and enjoyment of this land, while protecting both the landscape and its character. Depending on the week, our focus is on either trail work or campsite monitoring. Most recently, we cleared a trail in the Rio Grande National Forest–using only non-mechanized tools, like crosscut and hand saws–allowing for easier foot and stock access to an alpine lake. Other weeks, we hike remote trails, collecting data on already-existing or new campsites, dispersing illegal campsites, and carrying out as much trash as we can fit in our packs. On the first hitch of our season, we carried out nearly 85lb of trash and abandoned supplies.
Most significant to me, is the way that these weeks in the field have deepened my own understanding of wilderness character. This week, two of our work days were cut short due to dangerous weather conditions; lightning strikes with almost immediate thunder claps prompted us to decide to return to lower ground and wait out the storm in our camp. Waiting for the storm to pass in my tent, I felt humbled by the power of this place and the lack of power that we have as visitors in wilderness. I think that reaches the crux of wilderness character: that feeling of ceding control, entering an environment where you are humbled by both the power and the beauty of the natural world, “untrammeled by man,” as the Act puts it.
As our crew experiences on a daily basis, this wilderness character does not always make our lives easy: it’s that feeling of willingly putting yourself in the position of being cold, wet, sore, and daydreaming about that piece of pizza you’re going to eat the very second you get back to town, while simultaneously being in awe of the place you’re in. Wilderness character is the now-infrequent experience of being at the whim of the natural world. In a society where we have predominantly controlled our environments for our own use, safety, and enjoyment, it is a welcome-challenge–refreshing, even–to relinquish that control.
The efforts of our Wilderness Crew to both improve access to and protect the Weminuche Wilderness ultimately contribute to the protection of this character. It’s a fine line to walk: visitors must travel with care in order to protect the landscape. But, I hope that the work we are doing allows future visitors the opportunity to experience the joy, challenge, and resulting empowerment that I have experienced during my time working here in the Weminuche.