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Volunteers hike every trail

Scott Condon
Aspen Correspondent
Vail CO, Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen TimesForest Conservancy volunteer Jane Kendall of Aspen pets Samson, 2, while greeting guests Saturday morning at the Maroon Bells Visitor's Center. Kendall says she loves the mountains and the hiking and has volunteered for the last two years to help keep her occupied during retirement. "It keeps me busy," she says, "and I pick Saturdays because the're the busiest."
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ASPEN, Colorado ” When the snow melts off the high mountain passes and the wildflowers erupt, the Forest Conservancy blossoms.

The Roaring Fork Valley-based nonprofit organization hits its stride at this time of the year by sending rangers out on hikes on the 75 trails in the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest and providing ambassadors at the Maroon Bells. The Forest Conservancy has evolved in recent years into a vital complement to the U.S. Forest Service in the Roaring Fork Valley.

At a time when recreational visits to the forest are surging, funding is drying up. More of the agency’s national budget is dedicated to forest fire fighting and prevention.

Less is allocated for duties such as trail maintenance and visitor services.

“They just need help even more than the public can imagine,” said Marcia Johnson, executive director of the Forest Conservancy.

The organization was started in 2001 as a conservation group dedicated to education. The focus expanded in 2004 to enlist volunteers to assist the Forest Service in its core functions. Between 10 and 30 volunteers join each year.

The organization now has 95 rangers and volunteers. The goal is to have 200 by 2010.

“I’m so proud to live in this community because we are so active in taking care of this forest,” Johnson said.

The well-being of the forest is at the heart of the mission of the Forest Conservancy. While it provides volunteers to assist forest visitors, its real purpose is “to protect and preserve our White River National Forest for future generations.” The ambassadors and rangers educate and inform the public about being good environmental stewards.

“We see ourselves as champions of the forest,” Johnson said.

An active hiker in the high country surrounding Aspen regularly runs into the rangers. They can be encountered along a high-traffic area like Mount Sopris or on a more obscure hike like New York Creek.

“Yeah, they’re everywhere,” Johnson said. “It’s a reason to hike with a purpose.”

Rangers are there as a resource for hikers. They will gladly answer questions but don’t force the people they meet to listen to their message. The rangers are dressed in Forest Service uniforms that clearly designate them as volunteers. When they observe forest users straying from good environmental practices ” like walking a dog off leash in wilderness or camping too close to a water source ” they intervene in a non-confrontational way to explain the problem and propose a solution. The volunteer rangers cannot write tickets.

The ambassadors help the Forest Service with the weighty task of providing information to the hordes that visit the facilities at the base of the Maroon Bells each year.

Volunteers are asked to put in five service days, on the trails or at the Bells, each summer. “Our volunteers far exceed that,” said Johnson.

The non-profit provides its invaluable assistance on a shoestring budget. In 1996, its total revenues were $98,864, according to information filed with the Internal Revenue Service. The latest information available was from 2006. Nearly half of the revenues came from contributions from members. Johnson said members make contributions ranging from $25 to thousands of dollars.

Another $23,500 in revenues came from government grants. That was mostly the Forest Service providing funds for uniforms and equipment for the rangers and ambassadors.

The final $28,281 in revenues came from sales of literature and materials related to conservation.

The organization’s expenses totaled $79,941 for 2006, according to its report to the IRS, leaving it $18,923 in the black for the year. The Forest Conservancy’s net balance was $71,013.

Oversight of the volunteers is the primary expense. That includes Johnson’s salary of $49,206. The next greatest expense was $13,721 for routine business expenses, like advertising, credit card fees, insurance, consulting and materials needed for volunteer services.

After the 2006 budget, some changes were made that affect Forest Conservancy’s budget. Jennifer Lamb was hired as an assistant. On the revenue side, the Forest Conservancy reduced its sales of material. It relies now more than ever on contributions from members, Johnson said.

More information on the Forest Conservancy can be found at http://forestconservancy.com.


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