Public Lands Stewardship

Each year, San Juan Mountains Association organizes stewardship programs that directly improve Southwest Colorado’s public lands. For decades, our volunteers have been the heart of our programs donating tens of thousands of hours to conduct visitor outreach, promote Leave No Trace principles, and even provide trail maintenance.

Now, thanks to our generous donors to the Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, as well as our members and partnerships, SJMA has expanded our stewardship programs to include skilled seasonal workers. Starting in 2020, SJMA hired a group of skilled backcountry specialists to form the San Juan Wilderness Stewardship Crew. And new to 2021, we have hired a team of SJMA Forest Ambassadors, dramatically increasing our presence on public lands. This team of Forest Ambassadors will work with SJMA volunteers, amplifying the positive impact of these programs. 

SJMA Stewardship Crew - Colorado

San Juan Wilderness Stewardship Crew

The San Juan Wilderness Stewardship Crew is a group of highly skilled backcountry conservation specialists who are capable of operating in remote wilderness locations throughout the high country of the San Juan Mountains. In partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, the crew educates wilderness visitors on “leave no trace” practices, conducts trail work, and monitors wilderness characteristics throughout the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests. The crew works throughout the Weminuche, Hermosa Creek, South San Juan, and Lizard Head Wilderness areas implementing effective wilderness management strategies.

In 2020, thanks to donations to the Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, SJMA hired our first Wilderness Stewardship Crew. This four-person crew naturalized 200 campsites, cleared 160 downed trees, hauled out 259 pounds of trash, designated and cut out 8 campsites, surveyed 590 campsites, and conducted 173 hours of public outreach to visitors.

In addition, thanks to the National Forest Foundation’s matching funds, SJMA hired a Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC) crew to clear two of the four avalanche debris fields blocking the Elk Creek portion of the Colorado Trail. With help from USFS Wilderness Ranger Kristina Schenck and her crew, this spectacular effort resulted in clearing upwards of 500 catastrophically downed trees.  

In 2021, we are expanding the San Juan Wilderness Stewardship crew to a six-person team, allowing us to increase our reach in both the San Juan and Rio Grande National Forests. The crew will spend several weeks in the Weminuche Wilderness, working near the Continental Divide on the Rio Grande National Forest doing restoration work on trails damaged in a recent fire. The rest of the time, you will find them in the busiest areas of the Pagosa and Columbine Districts of the San Juan National Forest monitoring wilderness conditions, maintaining trails, surveying the increasing number of user-created trails, and educating the public as they go.

Last but certainly not least, the crew will help the San Juan National Forest crew and Colorado Trail Foundation volunteers to clear the 3rd and 4th avalanche debris piles that have been blocking the Colorado Trail since 2019.

Forest Ambassadors

SJMA is launching our new Forest Ambassador Program which will expand the successful Ice Lakes Education Basecamp model to the most popular trailheads and trails throughout San Juan National Forest and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests.  

Starting in May 2021, we will dispatch a team into the field each day to cover the busiest trails in our region, as well as the Alpine Loop, the popular motorized route between Silverton and Lake City. These ambassadors dramatically increase the presence of staff on public lands, 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 to the ever-popular Blue Lakes on the GMUG National Forest.

The SJMA Forest 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 SJMA volunteers who will amplify the positive impact of this program. 

The Forest Ambassador program is only possible thanks to our members’ support and an innovative grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) and our partners Mountain Studies Institute, Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and San Juan National Forest.

This program establishes a model for private public partnership that agencies, nonprofits, volunteers, and local businesses can all get behind. 

Ice Lakes Educational Basecamp

Ever since Ice Lakes Trail was designated a “Leave No Trace Hot Spot” in 2016, San Juan Mountains Association wanted to have a presence at the trailhead to encourage trail users to embrace Leave No Trace ethics. In recent years, Ice Lakes has suffered a number of impacts from the high number of visitors and faced numerous management issues. Pet and human waste, toilet paper and trash have been found in the basin while trail braiding and fire scars have affected the sensitive high-alpine environment.

During the summer of 2019, thanks to Outdoor Research and Backcountry Experience, SJMA got our first chance to have a steady presence at the trailhead. Outdoor Research donated their Tiny Home to us which became our first educational basecamp. In 2020, we continued our presence at the Ice Lakes Trailhead encouraging an unprecedented numbers of visitors to stay on designated trails, pack-out all waste, and respect fire restrictions.

Photo by Jerry McBride of Durango Herald
Ice Lakes Educational Basecamp 2020

During the busiest months of the year, SJMA staff and volunteers have spent 1000s of hours talking with visitors, installing signage, cleaning up pet and human waste, and doing light trail maintenance as well as conducting a major effort in 2019 to clear avalanche debris from the massive avalanche that plowed through the Clear Creek drainage blocking several switchbacks.

Often, visitors happily show the volunteers trash they picked up along the way, making the trail more beautiful for future visitors. Overall, visitors were very thankful that our volunteers were there to educate folks about proper trail and backpacking etiquette.

This program has been considered such a success that in 2021 we are expanding the education basecamp model to cover the most popular areas in our region.

Check out this informative video that our friends at Backcountry Experience created showing how SJMA, Outdoor Research and Backcountry Experience worked together during the summer of 2019 to promote Leave No Trace Principles and help protect Ice Lakes Basin.

In 2016, the Ice Lakes Basin and trail were designated a Leave No Trace Hot Spot. A Leave No Trace Traveling Team evaluated the area for a week in 2016 and made recommendations for preserving the area. As part of their visit the trailhead sign was installed and some trail work was done.

Stewardship Volunteer Opportunities

SJMA offers many stewardship volunteer opportunities from conducting visitor outreach through our most popular volunteer program, the San Juan Volunteers (previously known as Wilderness Information Specialist, WIS) to adopting a road to celebrating public lands days by giving back in the form of light trail work. 

For more information about all of our volunteering opportunities, as well as the stewardship options, check out our Volunteer Page

San Juan Wilderness Volunteers, 2011