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Watching over your wilderness

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyVolunteers with the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness, from left to right, Maryann Guag, Sara Hall and Michael Arnett, front, and Casey Arnett and Beth Boyst with the Forest Service, back, are learning techniques used on the hiking patrol program.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” Meet the concierges of the forest.

If you don’t know where a trailhead is, they’ll tell you. If you’re looking for a nice place to camp, they’ll point it out. If a big ugly log is in your way, they’ll have it removed. If a mountain biker nearly trampled you, they’ll reign him in.

These concierges are volunteers. With hundreds of miles of trail spread out through our local wilderness, it’s hard for rangers to keep track of it all. Volunteer groups like Friends of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness have over the years become an essential arm of the Forest Service to make up that shortfall, performing many of the tasks that are left behind when budgets are finalized.

“Volunteers are the backbone of what we do,” said Brian Lloyd, acting district ranger. “There are so many things we wouldn’t be doing if the volunteers weren’t around.”

Mainly, volunteers are like eyes and ears for the Forest Service. Rangers want to know which trails are falling apart, which ones are eroding, which ones have trees blocking paths, which ones are messy, where people are breaking laws. When volunteers point out those trouble spots, it helps the Forest Service prioritize projects for trail repair crews.

There’s also that customer service and education aspect ” making sure dogs are on leashes, making sure trails are clean, making sure trails are safe, making sure hikers feel welcome. There’s that whole concept of “Leave No Trace” that they want to make sure everyone is following.

“We’re like any agency and there’s so much work that could be done, so we have to pick and choose the important ones,” Lloyd said. “Even in good budget years, there’s more to do than what we have the power to do.”

The Friends, one of the most visible groups working with the forest service, do a little bit of everything in the Eagles Nest and Holy Cross wildernesses. They answer questions, check trail conditions, monitor camp sites and keep those pesky dogs on leashes.

“It’s an interesting balancing act ” keeping it wild and natural, and allowing humans there,” said Maryann Gaug, the program coordinator. “We want that chance for solitude out in the wilderness, but there are certain things we don’t know to do.”

Each volunteer is asked to spend four days during the hiking season patrolling a trail.

If you see a volunteer, they’ll likely say hello and how’re you doing, but they’ll also mark you down on a tally sheet. The volunteers do a lot of data collection for the forest service, and they’re the ones figuring out things like how many people really use a trail, how many campers are out there and how often certain laws are broken.

If they do see you do something wrong, say biking in a forbidden area, they’ll politely tell you. Volunteers usually carry leashes with them if they catch you without one for your dog. If your campsite is too close to water, they’ll have you move it back and even help you.

“The forest service only has a few rangers to cover a large wilderness,” Gaug said. “We see what they can’t.”

You could also take inventory of campsites and hunt down noxious weeds, if you aren’t in the mood to talk with strangers.

“They (the volunteers) take pictures and GPS readings that can go on a map,” Gaug said. “It helps the Forest Service decide which campsites to keep, and which ones should be revegetated.”

Other active groups include the Vail Pass Task Force, The Colorado Snowmobile Association, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and the Eagle River Watershed Council and many others, Lloyd said.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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