Wilderness Stewards Gird for Fall, Solitude Monitoring

By Dave Johnston

Fall is the busiest part of the busy season in the West Virginia highlands, and Dolly Sods is always at the center of the storm. People come from far and wide to take in the vast fields of scarlet blueberry and huckleberry leaves amidst the boulders of Bear Rocks. Many venture into the backcountry to enjoy the colorful ferns, hardwoods and grasses contrasting with evergreen spruce and pine. 

With this increased visitation comes impact, even from those versed in backcountry etiquette and Leave No Trace principles, but especially from casual visitors who may not be familiar with the special concept of wilderness and may unwittingly (or in some cases, carelessly) contribute more than their share to the interference in natural processes. More than any other season, fall leaves a mark on Dolly Sods.

Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards will be at the trailheads too, greeting visitors, assessing their level of experience, and delivering messages about care for the wilderness. We are likely to be busy, and we would like to cover more trailheads for a greater part of these heavily trafficked weekends. To do this, we will need more volunteers. You can be part of the team that is taking on the challenge of addressing the issues confronting Dolly Sods. Please consider joining the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. For more information about the program and to sign up, got to https://wvhighlands.org/dolly-sods-wilderness-stewards/.

Solitude Monitoring

Also on the agenda for the Wilderness Stewards this fall is a solitude monitoring project, in conjunction with the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards (SAWS). An “outstanding opportunity for solitude” is one of the defining characteristics of wilderness highlighted in the Wilderness Act of 1964. In order to effectively manage a designated wilderness area, the land management agency such as the Forest Service needs to periodically assess the degree of solitude afforded by the area.

This is particularly significant in heavily visited wilderness areas such as Dolly Sods. While we all have the intuitive impression that “it’s crowded”, solitude monitoring can be used to quantify the experience of a visitor so it can be compared against established standards, and changes or trends detected over time. It can also show how different zones within the wilderness provide greater or lesser opportunities for solitude. The agency can then use the data to make management decisions to maintain or improve the solitude experience.

In solitude monitoring, volunteers walk certain trails on designated routes and record information about “encounters” with other hikers or groups. Data such as the time and location, number of people in the other party, and their apparent agenda (day hiker or backpacker) will be recorded using standardized criteria and reporting forms. Similar information is gathered for encounters with campers at campsites.

For this survey, three routes have been selected that represent zones considered to have Very High, High, and Moderate usage within Dolly Sods. Each of the routes will be about five miles long and can be hiked in two to three hours. Each route will be surveyed twice on weekdays, and twice on weekend days. Wilderness Stewards will hike in pairs. The routes do not need to be covered simultaneously, so each team can do their survey on a day that is convenient for them. It is not necessary for the same team to do all the surveys on each route. In fact, a volunteer may be able to survey on just one day, which is fine – every contribution to this project is greatly appreciated. There are no qualifications needed to participate, other than the ability to hike about five miles and record data according to the standard protocol.

The surveying will be done from late September through mid-October. A training will be conducted by Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards on September 4, with a possibility for a second date later in the month. More information will be sent to the volunteers as plans for the training and the surveying develop.

This is the first backcountry monitoring project for the Wilderness Stewards, but future projects are planned to take an inventory of other conditions, such as the location and characteristics of campsites and trail conditions. 

If you would like to participate in the solitude monitoring, go to https://wvhighlands.org/dolly-sods-wilderness-stewards/ and sign up for the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards. On the signup form, check “Periodic backcountry campsite inventory”, as well as any other activities you might be interested in, and submit the form. If you have any questions, feel free to write me at dollysodsstewards@gmail.com.