December 13, 2020 by Brent Schoradt
This year, getting outside became a lifeline for Americans of all stripes, and our public lands became more popular than ever.
For me, a long hike anywhere on our public lands is the one activity that brings a sense of normalcy to my daily and weekly routines. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve all been reminded how important our forests and public lands are to our personal well-being, both physically and spiritually. Here in Southwest Colorado, we’re lucky to enjoy relatively easy access to millions of acres of public lands.
Unfortunately, a recent surge in visitors to our public lands has come at a cost. Many forest visitors are not aware of best practices and aren’t accustomed to visiting areas without bathrooms or trash facilities. As a result, human waste, toilet paper, trash and graffiti have become an increasingly common site at some of our most beloved local places. That’s why San Juan Mountains Association has stepped up its efforts to care for our local public lands.
Since its founding in 1988, SJMA has been committed to cleaning up and caring for our most treasured public lands, such as the Weminuche Wilderness and Ice Lakes Basin. This summer, SJMA volunteers made an immense difference by posting up at our Ice Lakes Educational Basecamp to educate hikers about how to responsibly visit the area.
All told, these local volunteers contributed 475 hours to contact 9,200 hikers and remove hundreds of pounds of trash while providing “wag bags” and dog poop bags to encourage folks to pack out their own waste. During one encounter in August, SJMA volunteers found an abandoned campfire that was quickly extinguished, potentially avoiding a peak season wildfire in Ice Lakes Basin.
After all these efforts, we were devastated to see the Ice Fire occur in late October, just a few weeks after SJMA’s Educational Basecamp was taken down for the year, when the area has normally received at least some initial snowfall. We know our efforts make a difference for the landscape, and we are eager to help facilitate the area’s recovery from the fire and this unprecedented busy season.
Because of local donations to SJMA’s newly formed Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, SJMA was able to improve conditions on the ground in 2020 and achieve these outcomes in the Weminuche:
Partnered with Southwest Conservation Corps and the Colorado Trail Foundation to remove avalanche debris from the Colorado Trail at Elk Creek, improving access to one of Colorado’s iconic through-hikes.Naturalized 298 illegal campsites.Installed eight designated campsites at Rainbow Hot Springs, while naturalizing unsustainable sites.Removed more than 70 downed trees from the Needle Creek Trail to improve access to Chicago Basin.Packed out more than 260 pounds of trash from the wilderness.In these times of great uncertainty, SJMA recognizes that one thing is for sure: Our public lands face growing threats, from persistent drought, catastrophic wildfire, climate change and surging numbers of visitors.
In response to these mounting threats, SJMA is doubling down on its efforts to stand up for public lands by educating visitors, empowering volunteers and instilling a land conservation ethic that will stand the test of time.
We know that caring for the land and protecting our forests and watersheds are core values of Southwest Colorado, and we are committed to digging deeper and standing taller in the face of growing challenges. After 32 years, SJMA’s work is just beginning.
October 9, 2020 by David Taft
During summer 2019, our community was deeply concerned about the state of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Visitation was exploding (as it still is), avalanches the previous winter left many trails blocked or obliterated, human waste continued to be a major issue in heavy-use areas and challenges seemed to be ramping up with no end in sight.
In response to this sentiment and public outcry, San Juan Mountains Association stepped up with our Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund.
Through last October’s San Juan Mountain Jam Fundraiser and countless local donors, we raised more than $40,000 toward stewardship projects in the Weminuche. We then used these community contributions as matching funds to pull in funding from the National Forest Foundation and VF Corporation, parent company of Smartwool, The North Face and Altra Running.
We are incredibly proud to report the results of the work that was accomplished thanks to your support. Despite early concerns because of COVID-19 that we would not be able to run our San Juan Wilderness Stewardship Crew, the crew of four began its season in early June and came out of the gate charging.
After a brief week of crosscut and wilderness monitoring training, the crew headed up to Chicago Basin to clear the trail and naturalize illegal campsites and campfire rings. Over the course of three days, the crew hiked 36 miles, cut 70-plus trees using 6-foot-long crosscut saws and naturalized numerous large campsites with illegal campfire rings.
This was a good warm up for the crew, which over the next 12 weeks would proceed to haul more than 250 pounds of trash from deep in the wilderness, log out the Vestal Creek Trail, naturalize almost 200 illegal campsites, saw through 90 more downed trees and spend almost 200 hours speaking with the public about wilderness regulations, Leave No Trace principles and how to visit this spectacular place with respect.
To wrap up the season, the crew headed up to Rainbow Hot Springs to clear avalanche debris and designate eight campsites to prevent hikers from camping too close to the West Fork of the San Juan River. We will maintain a reduced crew to continue with trail cleanup and hunter outreach throughout the fall.
In addition to our San Juan Stewardship Crew, with the money from National Forest Foundation we enlisted the help of a Southwest Conservation Corps crew to clear the first two avalanche debris piles blocking the Elk Creek portion of the Colorado Trail.
This was a massive undertaking, as there were about 500 trees thrown onto the trail. With additional effort from Kristina Schenck, U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger, and Colorado Trail Foundation trail adopter Connie Wian, the first two piles have been cleared and trail usability greatly improved.
Going forward, we have some big plans to keep the momentum rolling. We will continue working with Schenck to clear the additional log piles on the Colorado Trail next year. The crew will also spend a month working on trails in the Divide area of the Weminuche, most likely the Continental Divide Trail. We also look forward to ramping up our Wilderness Volunteer Program, as we now better understand how to conduct activities despite the ongoing pandemic. As always, we encourage you to reach out if you are interested in volunteering with SJMA.
We ask everyone to join us in celebrating Weminuche Month this October. In lieu of an in-person fundraiser this year, SJMA will be selling Wild for the Weminuche hats and stickers at local retailers (see our website or social media for a full list).
Furthermore, Alpine Bank has generously offered to donate $100 for every new Environment Loyalty debit account opened during the month of October. This is a great and easy way to support Colorado’s largest wilderness.
By Harry Bellow
Oftentimes, our work leads us off trail, bushwhacking to high alpine lakes in the shadows of towering peaks. Odds are you have stumbled across our work at some point during your trips into the wilderness. Our work is often invisible unless you know what to look for: clear trails, litter-free campsites and the disappearance of illegal campsites. The life of a wilderness steward is not easy, but the rewarding nature of the work draws one into a vast array of uncomfortable situations.
Funded with donations to San Juan Mountains Association’s Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, the task of the Wilderness Stewardship Team is to preserve, protect, monitor and educate people about wilderness principles. Our office is the wilderness areas around Durango, some of the most extreme terrain in the Lower 48.
On a typical week, we arrive at the Public Lands Center at 7 a.m. with backpacks filled with four days’ worth of supplies. We gather tools and team equipment, such as radios, crosscut saws, Pulaskis and shovels. Our drive out to the wilderness can take anywhere from 30 minutes to a whopping five hours. Sometimes, it is impossible to get all the way to a trailhead as the roads can be extreme in the rugged country. Upon arrival, the team suits up and begins work.
As we enter the wilderness area, we mark down the time and begin to count people we see. The data we collect about usage goes to classify the area in terms of impact. Pristine areas are relatively untouched by humans while semi-pristine areas are impacted by constant visitor use.
While we collect this data, we are monitoring campsites as well. Led by Asia Pfiefer, wilderness monitoring lead of the San Juan National Forest, the team is given GPS coordinates of existing campsites in the area. We find all of these campsites, survey them, pick up any litter and destroy them if they are illegal or have not been used for many seasons.
Commonly, we find aluminum foil in the fire rings, toilet paper in the bushes and forgotten frying pans. Most often, campsites are found along the trails and near a water source. Camping too close to a water source, less than 100 feet, dissuades wildlife from using it.
As we wander through the wilderness, we also complete trail work and make visitor contacts. Our mission is to protect the wilderness character. By clearing trails, we funnel the impact of visitors into a narrow area leaving most of the wilderness in its pristine state. We inform visitors about ways to minimize their impact so the wilderness character can be preserved for generations to come. All the while, mountains and the sounds of wind, birds and insects surround us.
As the sun sets, our work is finished. We often cook dinner, jump into lakes and sleep like the rocks surrounding us. I prefer to get in a nature run before the light fades. I am rewarded with the sights of deer and elk bounding away from me, and I am reminded of my visitor status. The sights I am privileged to see and the clean mountain air remind me of why I do what I do.
Harry Bellow works with San Juan Mountains Association as a wilderness steward.