Friends of Wilderness
By Christina Freeman
Friends of Wilderness volunteers remove bark on the newly-installed Gold Creek water crossing. Photo by Tom Baer
By Tamera Manzanares
During the climb to Gold Creek Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness, a popular trail coaxes backcountry visitors across the ice-cold and often gushing waters of Gold Creek.
If hikers are fortunate, a sturdy log spans the creek, making the crossing drier and less precarious. As an environmental bonus, this “enhanced water crossing” is better for the creek as well, lessening erosion from users who walk down and along the muddy banks searching for a passage.
Hikers may not think much of the log crossing or the manpower needed to maintain it. Last summer, 13 members of the Friends of Wilderness volunteer group spent half a day replacing a log carried off by spring runoff. “I’m giving this last one a 50-50 chance of making it through the early floods,” remarked Tony Seaver, a longtime member of the group, this spring.
The Gold Creek log crossing is one among ways FOW volunteers assist the U.S. Forest Service in preserving Wilderness within Routt National Forest – a job that includes working in Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and part of the Flat Tops Wilderness Areas, together covering more than 400,000 acres. During the past 14 years, FOW volunteers have travelled thousands of miles of trails within these areas, serving as Wilderness ambassadors and working to keep sensitive areas pristine. Due to the constraints of working in Wilderness, this work has all been done on foot or with the help of horses or llamas, and their tools for jobs like installing the Gold Creek log are limited to the non-motorized hand saws and other primitive tools.
About 40 mostly-retired individuals comprise FOW. Last summer, they logged almost 2,800 volunteer hours. The group works closely with the Forest Service, wearing uniforms and engaging backcountry users in friendly conversations about safety and Leave No Trace tips. They also haul out trash, maintain trails, plant trees and rehabilitate areas marred by overuse.
“We are so privileged to be able to visit these places and experience solitude,” stresses FOW founding member Elaine Dermody. By sharing this passion and setting an example, she says, volunteers hope to encourage users’ reverence and sense of ownership for these public lands. “Generations before us worked hard to get these lands designated as Wilderness. I feel my generation and others have a responsibility to maintain that.”
FOW volunteers remove a large log near Three Island Lake. Photo by Tom Baer
Following retirement, Elaine and Win Dermody traveled around the U.S. in their motor home, sometimes stopping for a while to volunteer in National Forest areas, including Mount Zirkel Wilderness. The couple, captivated by Routt County’s beauty and proximity to lush alpine meadows and lakes, decided to make Steamboat Springs their home.
As they continued volunteering, the Dermodys realized the scope of funding and staff challenges that the Forest Service and other land management agencies face in their work to protect Wilderness. In 2000, the couple and a small group of like-minded volunteers formed Friends of Wilderness. They formalized their partnership with the Forest Service, establishing training guidelines ensuring all FOW volunteer rangers follow the same objectives, techniques and safety protocols.
“That’s important, because when you’re out there by yourself, what you say and do reflects the organization,” notes Tony Seaver, current FOW president.
Early FOW members recruited volunteers through friends and acquaintances, many of whom, like the Dermodys, had settled in Steamboat following successful careers. Tony and Emily Seaver saw FOW as an ideal way to channel their love for backcountry hiking, camping and exploring. “This is just a way to do the same thing with a little more purpose and satisfaction and a way to give something back,” says Tony. “It’s the best volunteer job I can think of.”
Initially, FOW volunteers focused on providing a Forest Service presence and visitor education in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Top Wilderness areas. Volunteers head out on foot, with llamas or on their own horses on day and overnight trips. The extra sets of eyes and ears help the Forest Service stay on top of campsite inventories, trail registers and problems such as illegal campsites and fire rings.
“They fill all different holes for us,” says John Anarella, recreation program manager for the Yampa Ranger District, which oversees Sarvis Creek and part of the Flat Tops Wildernesses. “We are very fortunate to have them in place.”
Tony Seaver leads the llamas during a FOW volunteer work trip into the backcountry. Photo by Tom Baer
As FOW grew, local burdens on the Forest Service were expanding as well – including thousands of acres of standing dead and toppled trees resulting from fires and pine/spruce beetle epidemics. Volunteers increasingly found themselves removing fallen trees and doing other trail maintenance to help. They formalized this aspect of their 2001 mission statement and established themselves as a nonprofit organization in 2006.
Kent Foster, recreation program manager for the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District, says FOW volunteers’ experience, professionalism and dedication have been valuable. “They have dealt with a lot of situations and take what they do seriously,” he says. “They really are an arm of the Forest Service.”
The thrust of their work is in the backcountry, but FOW volunteers also serve as Wilderness ambassadors in the community. The group has been instrumental in bringing together partners to plan fall events in the Yampa Valley celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act.
“They are doing all the leg work for that,” Anarella says.
Volunteers also work to protect Wilderness outside Northwest Colorado. In 2010, Elaine Dermody helped launch a national network of community-based Wilderness volunteer organizations. The National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance facilitates communication and knowledge-sharing among more than 100 volunteer groups and the four federal agencies that manage Wilderness: The Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.
The process, though a lot of work, heartened Elaine’s faith in the many grass-roots groups and government staff working together to safeguard the nearly 110 million acres of Wilderness throughout the U.S. “I was so overwhelmed by the people at the top,” she says. “They really, really care about Wilderness and embraced this new organization.”
FOW founder Elaine Dermody on volunteer patrol in the Zirkels. Photo by Tom Baer
Perks of the job
Volunteers’ contributions are returned in rich Wilderness experience and knowledge. Bill Sanders has volunteered with FOW for more than 10 years doing mostly trail maintenance. Hiking over a quiet rise to the scene of grazing elk, watching a pair of eagles spiral in dance, and knowing where to drink water straight out of the ground, are among his favorite rewards.
“The knowledge you get from the Forest Service people and FOW volunteers that have been there a while – it’s like a guided tour with exercise class attached to it,” he says.
Traveling and working in the Wilderness strengthens minds as well as bodies – and FOW is always seeking new volunteers. Backcountry experience is helpful, but not required. Volunteers attend mandatory trainings and volunteer four or more hours per month during peak-season. In the field, volunteers find themselves identifying noxious weeds, fine tuning sawyering skills and strategizing how to best remove fallen trees from trails, among the many challenges that keep life in the backcountry interesting. “There’s a lot more subtlety to it than meets the eye,” Seaver says, describing the planning that goes into removing trees with hand saws.
Meeting and chatting with visitors, especially those who share passion and respect for Wilderness, is a big perk of the job. Hikers, campers, fishermen and hunters almost always are happy to see FOW volunteers and usually have a story to share.
Volunteer Jim Berger recalls an encounter with a group of hunters camping near Sarvis Creek Wilderness. They’d had no luck hunting elk, but they were in high spirits as they shared videos of 11 different bears they’d spotted. “The hunting part was why they came, but being in Wilderness was what it was all about,” Berger says.
FOW volunteers represent the Forest Service, but do not enforce Wilderness rules. They gauge visitors – local or non-local, experienced or non-experienced – to adjust the information and tone of their message. They use the “Authority of the Resource” technique to approach problems, such as people camping too close to a lake. The goal, Elaine Dermody explains, is to provide users with information about caring for sensitive Wilderness resources so they feel empowered to make the right choice. “It’s the most effective way of saying, ‘You can’t put your tent there,” she says.
Some of volunteers’ best encounters are with children, who always ask questions and are especially good at passing information on to their parents. Their enthusiasm is ripe for sowing seeds of respect and responsibility for Wilderness to spread to future generations.
As Sanders says, “A little sunshine on the face of the public is a wonderful thing.”
Freelance writer Tamera Manzanares grew up hiking, biking and camping in the Rocky Mountain West and now shares these experiences with her 7-year-old son in Steamboat Springs.
Happy 50th, Wilderness!
Friends of Wilderness and local partners are planning events to commemorate passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964. The celebration centerpiece will be a Walk for Wilderness, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sept. 7 on the Yampa River Core Trail. Beginning at Olympian Hall, there will be interactive displays and activities for children set up at various locations along the trail. Participants can get their “Walk Passport” stamped at each location to make them eligible for a swag bag and entry in a prize drawing. A panoramic photo of Wilderness areas visible from the top of the Steamboat Gondola is now on display in the Gondola lobby area. Anniversary activities also will include Wilderness-themed movies Sept. 2-4 at the Bud Werner Memorial Library. Partners helping coordinate the activities include Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears and Yampa Ranger Districts, Yampatika, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the Trapper’s Lake Chapter of the Sierra Club.