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Open to interpretation

Hikers on White River National Forest trails may have noticed a different kind of animal in the woods: volunteer forest rangers for the White River Interpretive Association. Since 2003, roughly 45 wilderness rangers for the nonprofit association have been exploring valley hiking trails, answering questions, collecting data and providing a friendly face of the Forest Service to visitors. The interpretive association, founded in 1991, works closely with the Forest Service to provide on-the-spot education and interpretation for visitors to the Roaring Fork Valley’s national forest trails.”Back in the days of old, rangers used to hike the forests all the time. We’re trying to give the old flavor back to the forest again and say, ‘Here’s a face of the Forest Service,'” association director Marcia Johnson said.When two-year volunteer and Glenwood Springs resident Laurel Williams last walked the Hanging Lake trail, she was surprised at how many curious children and adults approached her.

“The kids were so happy to see a ranger and they wanted to ask questions and just touch you. The Forest Service needs to be out there so people are aware they can help them,” said Williams, who volunteers once a week at Hanging Lake – the newest addition to the association’s range – as well as the Hunter Frying Pan Wilderness and the Maroon Bells wilderness, among others.Connecting visitors to the forest with representatives of the Forest Service represents a goal of the association, Johnson said.”Their sense of the quality of the experience is heightened when they encounter a ranger on the field, even if it is a volunteer ranger,” she said.A typical day for a volunteer means starting out early, getting to a trailhead, and first examining the parking lot and trailhead sign to make sure all are in working condition. The uniformed volunteer will then walk the trail and interact with recreationists, responding to questions ranging from inquiries on other local hikes to what species of flowers they see, Williams said. In between talking to visitors, the volunteer assesses the trail conditions, looking for weed infestations, noting maintenance needs such as downed logs, and recording observations on unique flora and fauna. Williams enjoys watching the black swifts that flit above Hanging Lake, a rare bird for the area that nests behind the lake’s waterfalls. Rangers will also remind people of certain Forest Service rules, such as the requirement that dogs be leashed on wilderness lands. Volunteer Ron Stevens stressed he doesn’t play an authoritative role while acting as a ranger, but instead educates people about why, for example, the leash rule exists.

“If you’re speaking from the standpoint of representing the forest, people have a little more tendency to listen,” said Stevens, who recently moved to Colorado from Michigan and started as a volunteer ranger three months ago. In his short time as a volunteer, Stevens has noticed visitors to the forest, for the most part, want to do the right thing and respect the forest – but sometimes they need a little guidance.”We’re like the eyes for the Forest Service, since they’re short on manpower,” Williams said.When a volunteer returns from their day of scouring trails, they report any pertinent information to Shelly Grail, visitor information specialist for the Forest Service. Grail also familiarizes new volunteers with Forest Service regulations and coordinates the trails the volunteers hike on a given day. A tight budget has meant fewer Forest Service rangers patrolling the national forests, so the presence of the volunteer rangers reporting back information has been invaluable, Grail said.”All of our volunteers are excited to be out there, and their energy is contagious,” she said. The White River Interpretive Association also offers programs such as forest ambassadors, who act as information resources for visitors, and historic stewards, who focus on historic restoration projects in the forests.



Through the volunteer ranger program, the association hopes to communicate an appreciation the forest and an interest in preserving it for people down the road, Johnson said.Williams, who claims to have hiked most trails in the valley, became a volunteer because of her love of the national forests. “The more we educate the public, the more they’re going to take care of our forests and our environment,” Williams said. “It’s really a serene, medidiative place to be. It rejuvenates your whole energy.”Contact Christine Dell’Amore: 945-8515, ext. 535cdellamore@postindependent.com


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