Which Volunteer Opportunity is Right for You?
By Marly Saunders,
The first time I worked with conservation volunteers, I led a group of high school students on a long-term volunteer trail project. As my students learned to use tools, cut tread, and spend all day in the woods, I watched something amazing happen. At first, they were hesitant and shy, holding back when hikers came down the trail. I talked to all the hikers and bikers and trail runners, educating them about our trail work. As the weeks went by, my group started to open up. They became knowledgeable and articulate and excited about what they were doing. Even my shyest students started jumping at the chance to chat with hikers, and those hikers became SO engaged. Hearing directly from volunteers why we should stay on the trail, why this work matters, and why we should leave no trace created a powerful connection to the land for recreationists. They saw how hard my students were working, and I saw it make a huge impression on many trail visitors.
As spring turns to summer, San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hard at work preparing for a successful season. At SJMA, we want to create those experiences where volunteers can share their perspective with San Juan National Forest visitors. I know that volunteers can have a huge impact on how people connect to and use our public lands. Visitors see how you care for the land and know you are there because of that passion.
This summer, we’ll have six different ways to volunteer with SJMA on our public lands. There is so much to do, but so many different ways to contribute! If each SJMA volunteer plays to their strengths, we can accomplish even more. If you’re interested in helping out, but don’t know where to begin, I’ve created a quick overview that will help you decide!
Do you love chatting with strangers, always excited to hear a new story and make a new friend?
Volunteer to be a San Juan Trailhead Ambassador at Blue Lakes or Ice Lakes!
Do you typically work alone, prefer to roam the forest in silence, drawn to the quiet parts of our Wilderness areas?
Volunteer to help with Wilderness solitude monitoring!
Do you live for summer backpacking months, riding the train into the Weminuche Wilderness, and hiking to new alpine lakes every year?
Volunteer for the basecamp at Chicago Basin!
Do you light up when you work with kids, love helping the next generation explore the San Juans, and feel passionately about science education?
Volunteer with our education program – After-School Science Ramblers or school field trips!
Are you always the “host” friend, looking for any chance to welcome friends, new and old?
Volunteer as a Durango Nature Center docent – a program returning for the first time since SJMA merged with Durango Nature Studies!
Are you one of those hikers who loves to identify each flower, tree, and rock, talking about ecology and our environment?
Volunteer as an interpretive naturalist on our summer nature walks!
Do you want to protect our public lands, but prefer to work on your own schedule and drive rather than hike?
Volunteer with our Adopt-A-Road program!
However you decide to volunteer, know that we couldn’t do any of this without you! Sign up for volunteer training & shifts for this summer at https://sjma.volunteerlocal.com. This will also ensure that you are notified of emerging opportunities. You can reach me directly at email@example.com if you have any questions or ideas!
Marly Saunders is the Volunteer Coordinator for San Juan Mountains Association & is excited to see you out on the trails this summer!
- Published in Stewardship, volunteers
Looking Forward to Summer: Interpretive Events
By Cassidy Storey
There is no shortage of splendor in the grandiose peaks, sprawling meadows, and diverse forests of Southwest Colorado. Whether you’re a mountain biker seeking the most epic of single tracks, a hiker finding solitude in Colorado’s largest Wilderness, or a fledgling outdoor enthusiast just scratching the surface, this region is unmatched. The San Juans have everything, and something for everyone.
When I moved to Durango from the front range two years ago, I thought I knew Colorado. Growing up near Denver and studying ecosystem science at CSU, I thought I had my home state figured out. I had yet to spend much time in the Southwest but was confident in my knowledge of and familiarity with Colorado’s diverse landscapes. Two years later, I know I could spend a dozen lifetimes just in the San Juans and never touch it all. These mountains are where I learned to love winter, doubled the interests that get me outside, and formed a deeper connection to the landscape than I thought possible.
But I didn’t do it alone. One of the reasons I moved to this area was to work in public lands stewardship and conservation education through the San Juan Mountains Association. I’ve dedicated my time to empowering locals and visitors in the region to explore, learn about, and protect our wealth of natural resources. Much of my SJMA career centered around developing interpretive programs. Interpretive programs are designed to bring out the relevance and meaning of the area you’re enjoying. They can help you understand how different plants and animals interact in an ecosystem, how ancient people lived off the land, how geologic processes have shaped the landscape, historic events, and more. Now, as warmer weather slowly approaches, and the signs of spring and summer start to make themselves known, the SJMA team is gearing up for an exhilarating schedule of community events.
Starting later this month, we will have a variety of opportunities for you to learn more about your public lands. On April 29th, we welcome you to join us at the Durango Nature Center Open House where you can take a hike, enjoy nature-based activities, and explore the location of our popular summer camps. Then on May 20th, we’ll celebrate Colorado Public Lands Day with two interpretive events: a wildflower-focused hike at Sand Canyon and the Boggy Draw Forest Restoration Bike Ride. Thanks to our partners at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, our educators will work with their rangers throughout the year to connect you to the fascinating desert ecosystem and rich archaeological history west of the La Platas. Look out for more information on a summer Full Moon Hike (July 31) as well as a fall Star Party (September 16).
By popular demand, we’ll also bring back our volunteer-led “San Juan Nature Hikes” at Andrews Lake this summer. From June to August, join our experienced volunteer naturalists in one of the San Juans’ most iconic locations to learn about wildflowers, mushrooms, geology, and ecology of the subalpine environment while practicing your identification skills and enjoying the company of other nature enthusiasts.
In addition to the events we have planned so far, our education and stewardship teams are working continuously to bring more informative and fun opportunities to you and the landscape. Follow San Juan Mountains Association on Facebook and Instagram, or subscribe to our e-newsletter on our website (sjma.org) for the latest information on all our programs.
Cassidy Storey was the Community Education Manager for San Juan Mountains Association before returning to Fort Collins, CO to pursue a master’s degree in wildlife biology.
- Published in Education, Stewardship
Snow fatigue is reminder of mountain’s benefits
By Hannah Green
I stand on the edge of the Wilderness as the late afternoon glow hits the peaks. Clouds hug the tops of the mountains signaling the incoming storm. The wind is cold, and the snow blows across the peaks in delicate wisps. It has felt like a long winter, with weekly storms and more recently lots of wind. Durango Weather Guy calls it “snow fatigue” but in moments like these, deep into winter, the snow and its beauty are undeniable and not to be forgotten when the next blizzard hits.
As the Snow Ambassador for San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) this winter, I’ve watched hundreds of people take off into the hills around Andrew’s Lake. For some it is their first time out in the backcountry in winter and others have lost count. But no matter their level of experience they are just happy to be outside. Since visitation to the San Juans doesn’t stop during these snowy days, neither does SJMA’s outreach and education efforts. My role is to provide visitors with forest and backcountry information from winter recreation opportunities to daily CAIC avalanche forecasts. Most people are just wondering where to go, some are interested in what I’m doing, but most people, especially outside of the parking lot, are just looking for some quietude or a chance to catch up with a companion.
I hear the word “playground” used a lot to describe the mountains and the word “playing” to describe our connection to these places, but I think in many ways those words degrade the importance of this land and of our responsibility in protecting it. This isn’t a playground, but the lifeblood to the four corners. Without the snow to fill the headwaters of our rivers, we, as a species, wouldn’t be able to survive here. After all, the water that fills our cup and keeps our gardens alive comes from high in these peaks.
It’s easy to become apathetic these days but when I ask myself what else I can do to help the aching planet, the only answer is to show people the beauty of these mountains. We all together have to be stewards of the land. This is not just my job, it’s everyone’s who steps out into these mountains.
I’ve criss-crossed the San Juans many times by foot: long ridgelines, big peaks, even bigger fields of wildflowers, and hundreds of miles of untracked snow across the wilderness; and have developed a relationship with the topography akin to the closest friendship. Through the highs and lows of life the mountains continue to inspire and motivate me to keep moving forward. This land gives me so much- and in an effort to not just take from it-I hope I can give back by helping people find their own relationship with this landscape.
And back to all the snow this season, if you too are experiencing snow fatigue right now just remember that the spring skiing, river season, and wildflowers come July will be incredible. The snow will keep us afloat for another summer as our climate changes and our weather systems vary greatly. A reminder to myself that we are lucky to have such regular storms and they will surely blossom into a magical summer.
Hannah Green is the Snow Ambassador for San Juan Mountains Association.
- Published in Stewardship, Winter
Hurray for snow – now get out there and have fun, be safe!
By Mike Wight
Ah, winter… As the white stuff piles up around us this year, I’m excited to get out in the mountains – to sled, ski, and explore the backcountry. When white-capped, the San Juans are majestic, but can also be dangerous. Tuning in to local avalanche conditions and following some basic safety precautions can make the difference between a day of winter fun and an avoidable accident.
This winter, all of us at San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) are excited to kick off our second winter season at Andrews Lake and welcome our new Snow Ambassador, Hannah Green, who is stationed at our Mobile Basecamp at the Andrews Lake winter parking area on Molas Pass. We’ll be stationed in the area every Friday through Monday until the end of March to provide information to visitors using this popular spot for winter recreation.
Hannah brings great experience to this position as she served as a SJMA Forest Ambassador in 2021, volunteers for San Juan County Search and Rescue, and holds an Recreation Avalanche Training level 2 certification. Stop in to say hi this year when you are in the area, grab a hot drink, and check in on what’s happening with the snowpack on the daily. Hannah will be primarily based at the Andrews parking area, but roving area trails and trailheads to interact with both motorized and non motorized visitors, to share information on winter Leave No Trace, Wilderness boundaries, groomed snowmobile trails, and more. This position represents a partnership between SJMA, CDOT, and the San Juan National Forest with a purpose of promoting safe and responsible use of our shared resources. Thank you to San Juan Sledders Ken Hilfiker for developing a detailed map of the Andrews Lake area and nearby motorized use trails for us to share this year!
In addition, SJMA and Mountain Studies Institute are excited to offer our Snow Science and Social interpretive snowshoe hikes once again this year. Starting January 14th, these free events will be offered every other weekend through mid March. Free to the public, these events offer a combination of snow education, travel awareness, winter ecology and fun! Finish with a hot beverage around a fire, check out our new Mobile Basecamp and meet our team! Registration is required, and details can be found at https://sjma.org/events/. Snowshoes can be provided for those that need them.
If you don’t have an opportunity to swing by the Mobile Basecamp or attend one of our winter events, remember to be safe out there, regardless of your activity.
A few tips for winter safety: Plan ahead and Prepare!
- Check the avalanche forecast and local conditions at https://avalanche.state.co.us/ .
- Let someone know your plan for the day, including an exact location and time of return. Check in with them when you are back.
- Carry the right equipment for any situation- extra layers, food and water, first aid kit, emergency gear repair, wag bags, and a communication device.
- Stay off slopes above 30 degrees, and areas with steeper slopes above.
- Educate yourself! Consider an avalanche awareness course, such as those offered by our local Friends of the San Juans.
- Remember- just because someone else went there, doesn’t mean it’s safe!
Mike Wight is SJMA’s Associate Director.
- Published in Stewardship
Wrapping Up a Solid Year
By Stephanie Weber
Anticipation hangs heavy in the air at this time of year. We see it in the faces of all the children (and adults, too) who visit the Christmas Tree lot, selecting the perfect tree to adorn their house for the holiday season. We feel it as we look to our favorite weather apps, hoping to see the promise of accumulating snow and the adventures it beckons and the impact on next year’s growing season. And those of us associated with non-profit organizations and small businesses feel it as we look at our financial statements and the calendars marking the end of the year, hoping that we close out the year strongly.
At the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA), we have also spent time reflecting on a solid year. The SJMA staff work hard to fulfill our mission to empower residents and visitors to the San Juan Mountains to explore them responsibly, learn about them more deeply, and to join us in protecting them for future generations. In summary:
- SJMA hosted more than 190 distinct educational programs this year, including widespread return to school-based field trips and full-capacity summer camps. Many third-graders experienced their very first field trips with SJMA, highlighting just how abnormal the past several years have been.
- Our visitor information specialists worked diligently to provide information and resources through thousands of phone calls and walk-ins – even though the public lands offices still operated under variable schedules due to COVID-19.
- SJMA’s seasonal stewardship crews – including the Wilderness Crew and Snow, Forest, and Alpine Loop Ambassadors, engaged with nearly 20,000 visitors over the entire calendar year, providing them with information on how to recreate responsibly and protect the public lands we all love.
- After Outdoor Research sold the iconic tiny home that has served as SJMA’s basecamp for stewardship efforts at locations such as Ice Lakes, Molas Pass, and Lizard Head Pass, we purchased an off-road utility trailer that is currently being modified to serve as SJMA’s mobile basecamp, version 2.
We collaborated not only with federal land management agencies throughout the region, including the San Juan, Rio Grande, and Uncompahgre National Forests, and the Bureau of Land Management, including Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, but also with a number of other non-profit partners, including Mountain Studies Institute, La Plata Open Space Conservancy, Southwest Conservation Corps, and Companeros. Partners only strengthen our efforts.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight one of our most valuable resources – all of you who have supported SJMA’s efforts through your time and your gifts. Hundreds of you have supported us financially and contributed thousands of hours to assist with SJMA’s myriad activities. Whether you have volunteered to help with our children’s enrichment programs, interacted with visitors at popular trailheads, spent a long weekend at the Chicago Basin basecamp, adopted a section of one of the many forest roads in the region, conducted solitude monitoring throughout our Wilderness areas, helped greet visitors at the public lands offices, served on our board of directors, or assisted with the Christmas Trees for Conservation lot, all of us at SJMA recognize your contributions, and we know that we are stronger and more effective as a result.
As we come to the end of 2022, all of us at SJMA can’t help but be filled with gratitude for our partners and supporters, and we look to 2023 with great anticipation for more opportunities to work with you to care for the public lands we all love.
Stephanie Weber is the executive director of the San Juan Mountains Association.
- Published in Education, Stewardship, volunteers, Winter
Preparing for Christmas tree fundraiser
By Mike Wight
As the seasons change in Southwest Colorado, I’m reminded how much I look forward to stoking the fire, sitting back, and enjoying the radiant warmth. Fall is a time to prepare, and stock up for the winter months. For me, the simple act of wood cutting, splitting, and stacking is a satisfying way to build confidence that all will be well in the coming months. We’re fortunate at the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) to have our own kind of satisfying wood harvest each fall – preparing for our Christmas Trees for Conservation fundraiser. This month, we’ll bring together over 70 volunteers- old friends and new- to help gather white fir from the Junction Creek Road beyond Animas Lookout. It’s one way we help prepare the forest for the year ahead.
Rocky mountain white fir (Abies concolor), adorned with bluish silvery-green needles, is a popular choice for Christmas trees, due to their attractive triangular shape and excellent needle retention. White fir is a softwood tree existing in an elevation range between 7,900 and 10,200 in Colorado, and growing up to 1.5 feet per year. Unlike our local ponderosas, white fir trees retain their lower branches, which – while attractive – can have serious implications for forests in the path of a wildfire.
Over the past two centuries, the harvesting of larger diameter trees, coupled with wildfire prevention, has caused an abundance of fuel loading and an increase of Abies concolor on the landscape. In the past, white fir were considered undesirable by the lumber industry, which meant they were not harvested- adding to the hardy populations we see today. In the face of a wildfire, the establishment of these trees increases the horizontal continuity of fuel loads. White fir, in particular, acts as a wildfire ladder fuel, quickly transporting flames from the ground into the canopy- which if conditions are wrong, can result in a rapidly moving, potentially catastrophic wildfire. By thinning the population of white fir, we can help reduce this risk.
On November 19th we’ll thin over 350 white fir from the proximity of Junction Creek Road, contributing to the spacing between forest fuels by enhancing a buffer to the natural fuel break that is the road. The Christmas Trees for Conservation event is just one of the ways that SJMA is working with the San Juan National Forest and our community to preserve our beloved landscapes in Southwest Colorado. We need your help! Please consider volunteering up for a morning or afternoon shift on Saturday, Nov 19th! We especially need drivers with 16 foot open trailers to help us transport trees to town this year. You can sign up here: https://sjma.org/events
When we bring these trees to town, we’ll again set up sales at the D&SNGRR parking lot at the corner of Camino del Rio and W. College Ave. Along with Balsam Fir trees from Wisconsin, the local white fir trees will be available starting November 25th. The SJMA Christmas Trees for Conservation lot will be open Sunday- Friday 12-6pm; and Saturday 9am-6pm. This is SJMA’s signature fundraiser, now in its 10th year, and proceeds contribute to our stewardship and conservation education programs. We’re grateful to the D&SNGRR, along with other marquis sponsors, including Target Rental, Southwest Ag, Inc., Durango Local News, and Bob’s Johns, for their support of Christmas Trees for Conservation.
So, as you look ahead to winter months and the coming year, consider stoking your own fire by contributing to SJMA, and bringing a white fir from the San Juan Mountains into your own home to enjoy. You’ll feel the radiant warmth from helping the forest, and your community, by adorning your home with a beautiful Christmas tree this year.
Mike Wight is the Stewardship Director with San Juan Mountains Association.
- Published in Stewardship, Trees, volunteers
Forest Ambassadors End Second Successful Season
By Cassidy Storey
In Durango, the shift from Summer to Autumn brings warmer layers out of the closet, plans for desert season, and a rush to behold the aspens before their leaves fall. At the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA), it also signifies the end of our summer stewardship crews. As the first spots of gold splashed across the highest aspens in the San Juans, SJMA’s front-country Ambassadors wrapped up a summer of outreach and stewardship throughout the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests as well as the Alpine Loop.
With one year of Ambassador work under our belts, we began this season optimistic for a second successful summer. We employed a crew of eight to engage with the public on “Leave No Trace” principles, responsible recreation in a variety of ecosystems, and protecting the magic of the San Juans, all while improving environmental conditions and removing hundreds of pounds of trash. Thanks to support from the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative (RMRI); county, state, and federal government; and support from SJMA members and corporate sponsors, we were lucky enough to welcome back five Ambassadors from the 2021 season and add three new stellar individuals to cover trails from Blue Lakes to Ice Lakes, Vallecito to Lizard Head, and many popular places in between.
The small but mighty team of Forest Ambassadors made nearly 14,000 public contacts, hiked about 1,200 miles, naturalized or cleaned 150 fire pits, and packed out over 400 pounds of trash! At the same time, our Alpine Loop Ambassador single-handedly removed more than 1,000 pounds of trash from the high alpine tundra and spoke to over 1,000 OHV users about the importance of staying on the trail in the high country where damage manifested by motorized vehicles could take many years to regenerate.
But why do these numbers matter to the average public lands’ enthusiast? Think of it this way: every time you visit an iconic trail in the San Juans and your trip is not tainted by human and pet waste, poorly-draining trails, excessive trash, overgrown vegetation, or messy campsites, there is a good chance an SJMA Ambassador had something to do with it. If you don’t notice our work, it means we’re doing it right and contributing to a safer and more enjoyable public lands experience.
The Oxford Dictionary defines an “Ambassador” as a person who acts as a representative or promoter of a specified activity, and, in our case, there’s more to the job than just time on trail. You may have encountered one of our Ambassadors in a variety of settings. Representing SJMA, RMRI, and our federal partners, the crew led volunteer cleanup events, provided visitor information in Durango and Silverton, hosted interpretive walks, and attended many community events to share messages on forests, wildlife, water resources, and recreation opportunities across the mountains. We can’t thank this team enough for sharing their passion for public lands in our neck of the woods.
While our stewardship programs slow down for Fall, we have big plans for Winter. The San Juans are a year-round destination, so we’re preparing to bring back our Snow Ambassador program for a second season. In 2021, SJMA’s Snow Ambassador stationed at Molas Pass reached hundreds of visitors about avalanche safety, winter ecology, and how to “Leave No Trace” as a winter recreationist. Stay tuned to our website or social media for updates on this year’s Snow Ambassador as well as snowshoeing interpretive hikes and other winter events.
- Published in Stewardship
Laying the Groundwork for Protecting Hidden Gems in the West End
By Corbin Reiter
With Moab two hours to the northwest, Telluride an hour to the southeast, and Durango several hours further south, the West End is easily accessible to many recreationists seeking new terrain, but it remains off the beaten path for now.
“The West End” refers to a collection of communities in close proximity along the western slope of the rockies and includes Norwood, Redvale, Naturita, Nucla and Paradox. Telluride is by far, the most recognizable community in the West End. Most people that visit the area don’t look much farther than this well-known, long-standing, highly developed recreation hub.
The desert trails and climate found around the West End presents a unique recreation opportunity for the area, and is an area that has a growing community of recreators that are invested in a more remote and high-skill recreation environment. With temperatures getting colder, the warmer climate of the West End means longer access to trail systems for biking, hiking, and off-roading after the more mountainous areas to the east are restricted by snow. It also means that residents of the West End have more opportunities to get out and do some stewardship and education programs that ensure that this part of Colorado can remains protected and well-managed even as more people find their way to the area.
Serving as San Juan Mountains Association’s community outreach specialist this summer in the West End, I have had the opportunity to put together events to help improve some of the public spaces in the area. In August, SJMA partnered with the Norwood ranger district to host a planting cone pickup event that removed plastic waste from the forest. This event included Forest Service and SJMA staff as well as volunteers from the area that chose to spend time contributing to the health of local public lands. Together, those present filled dozens of garbage bags with plastic planting cones that had outlived their usefulness and were polluting the Forest.
As the Community Outreach Specialist for the SJMA in the West End, my goal has been to connect with the organizations and people that are already invested in the West End. This has presented a range of opportunities from creating volunteer opportunities to expanding the reach of Forest Service programming.
The Norwood Ranger district office and SJMA have worked together in the West End to put together youth education opportunities through local libraries. Throughout the summer, the Forest Service hosted five youth education events that introduced concepts regarding sustainable stewardship, using public lands, and education about public lands in the area. The Wilkinson Library in Telluride provided the first venue for this series, hosting four separate youth education events. Norwood’s Lone Cone library also hosted a youth education event and had the second highest attendance out of any library education event hosted this summer.
Going into the fall, the Norwood Ranger district office is continuing its youth education programs. As the school year starts, we are engaging with Fourth Grade classes to continue to engage local kids in outdoor education. As part of this program, students will attend a series of events that are sponsored by the Forest Service, and once the students attend enough sessions, they will receive a parks pass and a
free Christmas tree.
The West End is an area that has been quietly nestled among other recreation powerhouses. It has massive potential to be a local hotspot that serves high-skill recreators looking to push their skills in a new area, but SJMA is helping to ensure that the next generation of residents understands the value and importance of caring for those public lands well even as it becomes discovered.
- Published in Stewardship
Stewardship Crews Strive to Improve Your Public Lands Experience
By Stephanie Weber, SJMA’s Executive Director
San Juan Mountains Association’s seasonal stewards have reached the final third of their summer stint. While I hear anecdotal updates from them throughout the season, it’s the time of year when I begin to look more closely at their impact throughout the San Juan Mountains – from Navajo Lake in Montezuma County to the eastern reaches of the Weminuche Wilderness, and from Blue Lakes to Junction Creek.
San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) has two seasonal stewardship crews – the Wilderness Stewardship Crew and the Forest Ambassadors. The Wilderness Stewardship crew is in its third year. Supported, in part, by the community through SJMA’s Wilderness Fund, this season we have a crew of four who work with the San Juan National Forest Wilderness team. They are clearing trails, collecting data for the US Forest Service which provides necessary information on future management plans, and conducting education and outreach to backcountry users.
The Wilderness crew spends most of their summer in the Weminuche Wilderness, but they also spend at least one or two hitches in other Wilderness areas in the San Juans. During their weeklong hitches, they clear downed trees along trails, laboriously using crosscut saws since chainsaws are not allowed in Wilderness areas. At the start of this summer, they worked diligently to clear more than 150 trees from Needle Creek to provide easier access to Chicago Basin. On a hitch on the Rio Grande side of the Weminuche a couple of weeks ago, they cleared more than 300 trees from Archuleta Creek and South Fork trails.
While SJMA’s Wilderness Stewardship crew works in the San Juan’s backcountry, SJMA employs a crew of front country stewards, too. SJMA’s Forest Ambassadors’ primary objective is to educate public land users on recreating responsibly and “Leave No Trace” principles in order to provide a better, safer experience for all users and to protect our public lands so that they remain a gem for generations to come.
Forest Ambassadors work at some of the most popular trailheads over the weekends to interact with as many people as possible. This summer, the Forest Ambassadors are focused on a dozen locations throughout the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
Their rotation includes Ice Lake and Blue Lakes, two locations that have forever been changed by social media’s reach. At each of these locations, SJMA Forest Ambassadors interact with an average of 125 visitors daily, and on some days, they easily surpass more than 250 engagements.
SJMA also tracks the preparedness of the recreationists for all of the trails that we monitor. It’s no surprise that the average readiness at Ice and Blue Lakes, in particular, is lower than average for all the trails we monitor. Forest Ambassadors routinely talk with visitors arriving in the afternoon as the monsoons roll in, ill-equipped with footwear and gear. These interactions allow Forest Ambassadors the opportunity to instruct recreationists in how to better prepare and prevent potentially dangerous situations.
The one pervasive issue that plagues all of our seasonal crews: trash. Whether it’s dog waste, human waste, wrappers, or trash bags deposited into port-a-johns or vault toilets, our stewardship crews contend with trash on a constant basis. Oh the stories they can tell! If there’s one thing you can do to help your public lands, it’s to pack out all trash.
On a regular basis, our staff are buoyed by their interactions with many public land users. Repeatedly, we see that many people simply don’t know the common principles of “Leave No Trace.” We have heard from quite a few people who have been pleasantly surprised to find their favorite trails in good shape despite increased us, and most people our crews interact with appreciate the work we are doing.
SJMA’s stewardship crews work hard because they are passionate about protecting our unsurpassed public lands, and they want to ensure that all of us can have safe, enjoyable experiences for years to come. If you cross paths with one of our crew, take a minute to thank them – or better yet, sign up as a San Juan Volunteer and shadow them for a day. I guarantee that you’ll look at the lands you love to play on with a little more appreciation and knowledge.
- Published in Stewardship
Volunteers Make a Difference in Chicago Basin
By MK Thompson
Those of us who cherish the San Juan Mountains are familiar with the term “loved to death”. We’ve seen photos and stories of beautiful places around the world being carelessly degraded by throngs of tourists. We don’t want this to happen here, and it doesn’t have to.
Yes, more people are learning about our little slice of heaven, and the number of hikers, backpackers, and peak baggers has skyrocketed in the last few years. But the impacts on the land don’t have to increase so long as we educate visitors about how to visit with respect.
Educating trail users is the main goal of San Juan Mountains Association’s (SJMA) Forest Ambassadors and San Juan Volunteers. The vast majority of visitors who disrespect our favorite places do so because they honestly don’t know any better. Yes, they could have done more research preceding their trip, but they didn’t. Instead of berateing these people, we have genuine conversations with them which leads to positive interactions and grateful people who will help spread the word.
An important thing to remember when visiting any wild place is that we don’t live there. As the Wilderness Act of 1964 states, true wilderness is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. The plants live there. The animals live there. The rivers and springs flow freely. Humans are not a natural part of this ecosystem; therefore, it is important that we do our best not to impact it.
Recently, in a partnership with the San Juan National Forest (SJNF), SJMA, and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNGRR), an old educational program has been resurrected – the Chicago Basin volunteer basecamp. The goal is to reach more visitors and provide them with tips on how to respect this incredible place. Volunteers take the train to Needleton and then hike up to the camp with a lighter pack than usual since the camp already contains some necessities and luxuries.
The basecamp has a long history – so long that even the original mastermind of the camp, Kathe Hayes, can’t remember what year it started. I first helped set up the camp in 2011, after it was already well established, and participated in several set-ups and break-downs. We typically used llamas to pack the gear up there in mid-June. Then, in early September, would use horses to haul the gear out. All of this is made easier with cooperation from the railroad.
The volunteers in Chicago Basin focus on the 4 W’S – wildlife, water, waste, weather, and snags. For a boatload of details about how to respectfully visit Chicago Basin, go to sjma.org or do an internet search for the Chicago Basin Trip Planning Guide. Here are the 4 W’S in a nutshell:
- Wildlife: Mountain goats and marmots in the area are habituated to humans and will approach campers. They love salt. Marmots will chew on anything salty – trekking poles, boots, backpack straps, etc. Mountain goats love salt and other minerals in human urine. Seriously. It’s important to pee in flat rocks or rotting logs. If humans pee on vegetation, the goats will tear up the plants in an attempt to get the salt.
- Water: The land and plants that surround water sources make up less than 1% of the landscape and vegetation. It is important to camp, eat, and “go to the bathroom” at least 100 feet away from water in order to protect the ecosystem that lives there all year-round.
- Waste: Human waste should be packed but can also be buried 6 to 8 inches underground. All trash and toilet paper must be packed out. This includes all food scraps – even sunflower seed shells, fruit peels, and anything accidentally dropped on the ground. This can attract ant colonies or make wild animals sick.
- Weather: Afternoon thunderstorms are common from late June until mid-September. Plan accordingly to be in a safe place and prepare for a drop in temperature.
- Snags: There are many dead trees due to a previous spruce beetle infestation. Be sure to camp where dead trees are not going to fall on you.
No matter where you recreate outdoors, you are always a visitor. These guidelines apply to everyone. No one wants to love a place to death. Many people just haven’t been educated. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with people. This is how we can all begin to take care of these magical places. And if you think you want to volunteer for the basecamp in Chicago Basin, email Erica Tucker, firstname.lastname@example.org or go to sjma.volunteerlocal.com/volunteer/
MK Thompson has been with SJMA since 2009 and currently serves as a Forest Ambassador. Contact her at email@example.com
- Published in Backpacking, Hiking, Stewardship, volunteers