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
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
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
Celebrate Christmas and support SJMA by buying a tree
By Shannon Daily
Here at San Juan Mountains Association, we have experienced a bustling, exciting and fulfilling summer and fall. Whether it be our educators running science-based summer camps for youth, our Forest Ambassadors hitting the trails to spread the message of Leave No Trace, or our Visitor Information Specialists educating visitors about our forests, all of us at SJMA have experienced great satisfaction in working towards our mission to inspire and empower connection to and responsible use of the spectacular public lands of Southwest Colorado.
As our busy field season winds down and the golden leaves have turned to brown, we find ourselves ramping up for our biggest fundraiser of the year, Christmas Trees for Conservation. We would like to invite you to join us on the Tree Lot this year. You can volunteer by working a shift at the Tree Lot or stop by to purchase your Christmas tree from us and browse our Pop-Up Shop for some local stocking stuffers. Here are a few reasons why we operate the Tree Lot.
First, the Christmas trees! SJMA sells both freshly cut local white fir and farmed balsam fir trees from Wisconsin. The local white firs grow right here in the San Juan National Forest, which means an almost nonexistent transportation carbon footprint. There are no pesticides, fertilizers, or irrigation used so the white firs are not as full as trees from a tree-farm, and have smaller trunks. A large group of SJMA volunteers goes into the forest and cuts these trees from a designated area. Working in conjunction with our partner, the San Juan National Forest, thinning white fir along the road helps prevent catastrophic fires and protects the overstory trees from a crown fire. White firs represent the locally-grown option on our lot and bring a little bit of the San Juan National Forest into your home. We also sell farmed balsam fir trees which are grown in Wisconsin. The ideal growing conditions and fertilization allow the balsam trees to reach a perfect shape and size.
A second reason that we operate the Tree Lot is the camaraderie felt from working toward a common goal. Volunteering for a 3 hour shift at the sale is a wonderful way to spend time during the holiday season. Likely, you’ll see people you know from around the area and help them purchase the perfect tree.
Lastly, the proceeds from the Tree Lot go to supporting SJMA’s mission, and serves as our largest fundraiser of the year. We are deeply grateful for all the support from the community. The Tree Lot opens on Friday November 26th at noon and is open every day until the trees sell out. Last year, we sold out in under three weeks, so don’t delay! The hours are Sundays – Fridays from 12:00pm – 6:00pm; Saturdays from 9:00am – 6:00pm. The lot is located at the corner of Camino del Rio and College Avenue in Durango.
Whether it be volunteering or shopping, we hope to see you at the Tree Lot! Learn more and sign up to volunteer at www.sjma.org.
Another way to support SJMA? Check out Sticker Mule for the fastest and easiest way to buy custom stickers and other printed products! Thank you Sticker Mule for your support!
- Published in Stewardship, volunteers
Standing up for public lands in the face of mounting challenges
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.
- Published in Stewardship, volunteers
Wilderness Efforts in time of Covid
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
- Published in Education, Hiking, volunteers
Native Plant Restoration Project Successful Despite Inclement Weather
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.
- Published in Nature, Trees, volunteers