By David Taft
From the soaring amphitheater of Ouray, to the turquoise lakes of Silverton, to the red rock canyons of Mesa Verde, it was absolutely unmistakable that last year was unlike any before it. The overwhelmed parking lots, trash strewn trails, and overcapacity camping areas were impossible to miss. Everyone acknowledged that something needed to be done to manage the ballooning growth in visitors on Southwest Colorado’s public lands. If you ask a land manager what the best solution is to improving the situation, invariably they will respond “more boots on the ground”. We need more people to clean up the mess, educate visitors on how to reduce their impact, and ensure that the increased visitation doesn’t harm both the landscape and experience of other visitors. Thanks to our members’ support, an innovative grant from GOCO, collaboration with Mountain Studies Institute and our great agency partners, and a bit of creative thinking, we will be doing exactly that this summer at San Juan Mountains Association.
Starting in May, we will dispatch a crew Forest Ambassadors into the field each day to cover the busiest trails in our region. These Ambassadors will cover a huge swath of public land, ranging from the lofty heights of Lizard Head Pass, to the forested trails of Boggy Draw and Vallecito, to the wildly popular high country peaks around Silverton. The ambassadors will greet hikers at trailheads, alert visitors to fire restrictions, educate them about how to responsibly visit sensitive alpine environments, keep trails in top shape as they go on patrol, and monitor conditions so we can better manage these exceptional places. Furthermore, the ambassadors will team up with volunteers who will amplify the positive impact of this program. This program will provide a perfect opportunity for new volunteers to gain some experience with a land management professional in the field, or for a veteran volunteer to enjoy some quality time sharing their knowledge of a place they love. These volunteers will accompany ambassadors to patrol trails, track visitor numbers at trailheads, and help keep our favorite recreation spots beautiful.
This Forest Ambassador program will dramatically increase the presence of staff on the land in the San Juan National Forest, and establishes a model for private public partnership that agencies, nonprofits, volunteers, and local businesses can all get behind. We encourage you to get out with an ambassador this summer, see what they’re up to, and give them a hand in their daily mission to keep the San Juans beautiful. We all acknowledge the exceptional value of spending time in the outdoors, and want to encourage everyone to enjoy the health and emotional benefits of visiting public land. With this program, we will ensure that we can all enjoy the benefits of time spent outdoors without harming the place, wildlife, or future visitors’ experience.
By David Taft, Conservation Director
It needs no saying that 2020 was a radical departure from normal, and it’s becoming quite clear that it left its mark on our nation’s most iconic public lands. Countless trails and recreation areas saw visitation increases in the 100-300% range, putting an average Tuesday in 2020 on par with the 4th of July week in previous years. Due to this influx, issues including habitat degradation, social trail creation, and massive increases in human waste challenged our public lands and the people who manage them. As we turn the page into a new year it is time to rethink how we tackle challenges to public lands and channel our energy into protecting the places that need it most.
Traditional hot spots were figuratively (and in some cases literally) burned to the ground last summer., San Juan Mountains Association has plans to turn that around by doubling down on our efforts at Ice Lake, Chicago Basin, the Colorado Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail. All of these areas are in desperate need of public outreach presence, trail rehabilitation, erosion management, and a laundry list of other issues. We will do this by expanding our volunteer activities, offering public trainings such as crosscut sawing and outreach, increasing our seasonal staff presence, and growing our partnerships with other organizations.
SJMA also plans to reboot all our educational activities to further enhance and deepen our community’s relationship with the mountains and valleys we call home. Our expert staff and volunteers will lead interpretive sessions because we believe understanding these places is the best way to inspire visitors to become good stewards of the land.. We encourage everyone to take a day or two out of their summer to learn about the wildlife, flora, and geology of our mountains.
At SJMA, we are encouraged that so many Americans used the great outdoors as a coping mechanism for the hardships of 2020, because the outdoors should be open to all. But along with this trend we must have a corresponding increase in voluntarism and public support for these places. So take a stand this year by giving back to the places you love. Sign up for one of SJMA’s volunteer days, take a training to learn about trail maintenance, volunteer to lead or join a naturalist hike for visitors to the area, or simply pick up trash and be a resource to those needing direction. There is little indication that user numbers will drop back to pre-pandemic levels, so we will all need to contribute in our own ways to ensure the San Juans remain healthy and vibrant.
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.