Wilderness Stewards Tackle Fall Crowds

By Dave Johnston

The last week of September and first two weeks of October are prime time in Dolly Sods. Although climate change appears to be causing the peak of fall colors to occur later, historically the last weekend of September heralds the onset of the brilliant color season in the northern West Virginia Highlands. The Tucker County Leaf Peepers Festival (canceled this year) brings large numbers of visitors to Canaan Valley, Blackwater Falls and, of course, Dolly Sods, where the famous scarlet blankets of blueberry, huckleberry and other foliage of the heath barrens create a “fire on the mountain” effect.

In recent years the peak of fall colors has been moving toward early October, and this year appears to continue that trend. As of the last week of September, only the maples are showing widespread color, and the berry bushes of the Sods, while tipped with red, have yet to reach their uniform brilliance. It is likely that once the show gets rolling and word gets out, the first couple weekends of October will once again attract hordes of foliage seekers to the Sods. The Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards are ready!

Trailhead Stewards

As they have done all summer, the Trailhead Stewards continue their presence at the most popular trailheads during they busiest times of the weekends. The Stewards greet visitors and offer to be a resource for people heading out into the wilderness. This usually results in a conversation about suggested routes for backpackers and realistic loops or out-and-back destinations for day hikers. 

During the conversation the Stewards work in key messages about what to expect in the wilderness, and how to help preserve it for others to enjoy. The Stewards make sure hikers understand the special nature of the wilderness, and the rules and recommendations of the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) specific to this wilderness. The Stewards refer to the seven Leave No Trace principles, customized for the particular challenges of Dolly Sods.

Over the past several months volunteer Trailhead Stewards have logged about 250 hours at the trailheads and have talked to more than a thousand visitors. The response has been uniformly enthusiastic, with many visitors asking follow-up questions and thanking the volunteers profusely for helping them and for caring for the wilderness. 

The Trailheads Stewards will be making a special effort to maintain their coverage of the trailheads during this busy season. 

Solitude Monitoring

When thinking about wilderness character we tend to focus on preserving natural processes, free of human interference. Yet one of the key values of wilderness character called out in the Wilderness Act of 1964 is a distinctly human one: the “opportunity for solitude”. This reminds us that wilderness is not only for nature – it provides us humans with an opportunity to experience nature directly, without everyday distractions or social interactions. 

To assess how close wilderness areas under their management come to meeting the goals of the Wilderness Act, land use agencies need to measure the degree to which they provide an “opportunity for solitude”. Such an assessment by the MNF is due for the Dolly Sods Wilderness. The Wilderness Stewards, in conjunction with another partner organization, the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, are currently conducting surveys of certain representative routes within the wilderness to record the number of encounters during a typical hike.

Routes representing three usage levels, Very High, High, and Moderate, have been selected. The Very High route is basically the Bear Rocks and Raven Ridge trails to Rocky Ridge. The High route is the Big Stonecoal and Rocky Point trails to Lions Head, and the Moderate route is the Wildlife and Rohrbaugh Plains trails to Rohrbaugh Cliffs. 

Volunteers are hiking each route for two hours, then turning around and hiking back for two hours. Along the way they record every time they see or hear another group of hikers and note the numbers. They do the same for occupied campsites, and note any other sites within close proximity. The forms with encounter records will then be provided to the MNF.

Those who hike in Dolly Sods know intuitively that opportunities for solitude are limited, at least along many of the trails. The solitude monitoring effort will provide numbers for that, which the MNF can compare with general wilderness standards as well as past and future surveys. This can then become an element in prescriptive actions to improve and preserve the wilderness character of Dolly Sods.

Registration Boxes

Many years ago the trailheads at Dolly Sods had registration boxes for hikers to sign in. But the MNF was not able to keep them maintained and collect the completed sheets on a regular basis, so they were taken down. When WVHC first approached the MNF last spring to ask what volunteers could do to help, maintaining trailhead registration boxes was at the top of the list.

WVHC donated the materials for construction of the boxes, and they were installed at each of the Dolly Sods trailheads along FR 19 and FR 75 in mid-September. Signing in is voluntary for hikers, but so far it appears that the boxes are well-received, and the majority of hikers take advantage of them. The forms are simple, asking only for a name, date, planned route, number of nights and number of people in the party, and a zip code. The boxes display a sticker acknowledging WVHC’s contribution with a link to the web site.

Wilderness Stewards will be visiting the boxes on a regular basis, checking their condition, replacing pencils and collecting filled sheets, which will be turned over to the MNF. WVHC is also recording the data (but not names) for its internal use and analysis. By agreement with the Forest Service, we cannot publicly release the numbers at this time, but during the first 10 days several hundred parties registered, with nearly 1000 hikers entering the Dolly Sods backcountry.

The addition of the registration system, enabled by WVHC volunteers, is one of the more significant accomplishment of the Wilderness Stewards program. The resulting data will enable the MNF to quantify the high levels of visitation in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. This will guide management decisions about campsite and trail conditions, allocation of resources, and provide documentation needed to obtain additional resources. 

By the end of October the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards will have completed its first season of activity. We will have the opportunity to debrief and assess the results of the efforts, and work with the MNF to plan for next year. The Trailhead Stewards will be back, and registration information will continue to be collected. We hope to expand the program to include a thorough inventory of campsites and trail conditions, and begin trail maintenance work. If you would like to be part of all this, please visit https://wvhighlands.org/dolly-sods-wilderness-stewards-form/ to sign up!