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.
by David Taft, Conservation Director, San Juan Mountains Association
As one of Durango’s longest running public lands education and stewardship organizations, San Juan Mountains Association has plenty of experience connecting folks with the outdoors and confronting challenges in the backcountry. However, just like everyone else, we are caught in the midst of the ongoing public health situation. We’re currently observing how it relates to our local public lands and the San Juans community, as well as figuring out how we will approach this season. We have been in close communications with our agency partners, fellow conservation organizations, and healthcare specialists to ensure that we can continue pursuing our mission of caring for our local public lands, while protecting the health of our staff and supporters.
This season we have planned on upping our efforts in the Weminuche Wilderness, and we continue working hard to ensure that these plans can go forward. This is especially important as people continue to retreat to the local mountains for their social distance, a trend likely to continue as weather warms and trails dry. In a collaborative effort with the San Juan National Forest, we will help manage a new San Juan Ranger crew thanks to generous donations from the local community. This crew will be backpacking through heavy use areas, documenting and maintaining trail conditions, restoring heavily impacted areas, engaging with the public (according to CDC guidelines), and ensuring that the SJNF has the information they need to make informed management decisions. We will be providing reports from the field over the course of the season so that we can all keep an eye on their progress.
While in-person volunteer events are off the table in the near term, there are still ways to get involved. Sign up for a webinar (we are hosting a Colorado Public Lands Day crosscut saw Zoom course!), stay informed about future volunteer outings through our E-News at sjma.org, and share your stories and photos to stay positive. We encourage everyone looking to stay excited about our magnificent local public lands by sending in a short write up along with photos of a memorable trip to the San Juans. You can send these to us at our instagram @sjma_co, Facebook, or email@example.com.
As always, we will continue to offer visitor information for local public lands, and our staff will do their best to provide the clearest up to date guidance on trails, access, facilities, and regulations.
Thank you, be safe, be healthy, stay close to home.
By MK Gunn, Volunteer and Education Specialist for SJMA
Have you tried digging a hole in southwest Colorado lately? Thanks to all this moisture, it’s quite easy. It turns out that “bad weather” isn’t always so bad. Five students from Fort Lewis College (FLC) volunteered their time this past week to get wet and muddy with SJMA and BLM staff and assist in planting of ~40 native trees and shrubs in the Bradfield Bridge Campground next to the Dolores River.
But the weather was bad enough that not everything went according to plan. The project was originally slated to be a 3-day collaboration between FLC, SJMA, and the BLM Tres Rios Field Office. FLC and SJMA were to camp out for two nights and bond over canned goods and camp shenanigans. However, the weather forecast for the first day and night of the project proposed a 90% chance of rain with highs only in the mid 50’s. I don’t know about you, but I like happy campers. I like happy volunteers. So, the BLM covered the first day of work.
At 8am on the second day, I convened with Kim Cassels, Carin Cleveland, Katherine Potter, Miaja Noyd, and Andrew Cranmer, all FLC students. We were in Durango and the day was still as dark as night. Rain came down in cold sheets and intermittently changed to hail, sleet, and snow. We all had our camping gear packed because the weather forecast claimed that things would get better. As I tried not to shiver, I informed the group of our worst-case scenario.
“Let’s just drive there and see what happens. If we don’t camp out, I’ll make you all dinner at my house tonight. Does everyone have enough warm and waterproof clothing?” Heads nodded. “Are you sure?” Oh, this group was sure. They were stoked!
As we drove west, the precipitation waned and by the time we were between Mancos and Dolores, we saw a rainbow!
On the whole, the weather was fairly cooperative. We arrived at Bradfield, set up a day camp, and unloaded the tools. David Taft, SJMA’s Conservation Director, and Justin Hunt, Recreation Tech for the BLM, met us there. We felt a bit like we were in the Scottish Highlands as squalls of light rain moved through on fierce winds and low clouds. Pretty good working weather. Miserable camping weather. In just a few hours, we had all the remaining trees and shrubs planted in the ground. We pounded T-posts and built protective fencing until we ran out of fencing. That was it. We worked so efficiently that there wouldn’t be enough work for a third day.
By then, we had seen the sun a few times but had also been severely flogged by rain here and there. The day ended with a sunny, chilly breeze. I assured everyone that they would all fit on my giant couch. We loaded up and headed back to Durango. There, we whipped up a giant pot of green chili stew and laughed about the day’s events in the warm light of my living room. Yep, happy campers.