Volunteer groups lend a hand to heal `loved to death’ public lands
On any given Saturday, thousands of people flock to the Colorado mountains. Some are locals, others Front Rangers, and still others come from far away to experience the wilderness surrounding places like Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Vail and Breckenridge.
But a handful of those headed into the high country are not there to hike, bike, fish or simply take in the scenery. These men, women and children have a greater mission.
“By volunteering their time and energy, our goal is to have people come away with a sense of accomplishment that translates into an appreciation of and an ownership in our public lands,” said David Hamilton, executive director of Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, which organizes outdoor projects from Aspen to Rifle. “We believe it’s important to maintain what we have around us in the short term, and perhaps more important, in the long term.”
It’s a good thing someone is looking out for Colorado’s public lands. The combination of slashed government budgets and ever-increasing numbers of backcountry users is a recipe for disaster for Colorado’s mountains and rivers.
“Hikers, bikers, skiers, paddlers, horseback riders, anglers, birders and hunters all share something in common: We all love Colorado! Unfortunately, we are loving her to death!” declares the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado Web site.
It’s a problems that has prompted many Coloradans to take action. From government-based open space and trails boards to nonprofit work groups like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers, people across the state are jumping in to save the land that makes Colorado special.
“When the Forest Service threatened trail closures, we got organized,” said Dawes Wilson, who founded the Vail Valley-based Trails Action Group, or TAG, five years ago. “Now we identify area trails that have suffered hiking, biking and horse impacts and we try to fix them up.”
Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers has taken on a similar range of projects since its inception in 1995, from upgrading trails in heavily visited areas such as the ghost town of Ashcroft outside Aspen to beginning construction on newly approved trails like the Castle Valley Trail just north of New Castle. Often times the projects are coordinated with like-minded advocacy groups.
In April of this year, for example, Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers teamed with the Denver-based Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado to restore lands destroyed by the Coal Seam Fire outside Glenwood Springs. It was a unprecedented success: More than 400 volunteers spent two days planting about 5,700 trees and shrubs on the hillsides torched by the massive blaze.
Vail’s TAG couples with the U.S. Forest Service for its half-dozen projects a year, which range from minor repairs to major reroutes on trails across the Vail Valley. “All of our volunteer days are organized with the Forest Service, or are at least supervised by a forest service trail crew.”
In Summit County, the Friends of Eagles Nest Wilderness has received State Trails Program grants and funding from agencies such as Great Outdoors Colorado to complete projects in the White River National Forest’s Dillon Ranger District.
Like Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers and TAG, the Friends is a wilderness stewardship organization that does trail maintenance and rehabilitation, as well as education and outreach. According to Currie Craven, head of the volunteer group, his corps help complete projects the Forest Service doesn’t have the manpower or funds to tackle.
Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteer’s Hamilton sees his organization’s role in a similar light.
“We are a resource for land management agencies,” he said. “We do things that the forest service and BLM don’t have the budget for or don’t have the resources to carry out.”
Of course, staving off degradation in the Colorado backcountry isn’t the only reason outdoor volunteer and advocacy organizations exist. Trashed trails and neglected wilderness can have dire consequences beyond the environment.
“If we don’t maintain the trail system so it’s a pleasurable experience for the visitor, they might not want to come back. That’s not beneficial to the economy,” said Craven.
With the fluctuating national economy affecting Colorado just as much as the next state, resort towns like Aspen, Glenwood Springs Vail and Breckenridge can’t afford to lose tourists – or the dollars they bring in to the local economies.
“It’s hard to assess, but I would hope that a side effect of our work is to bring people to town,” said TAG’s Wilson. “A problem for all ski towns is getting through the summer. And since many skiers and winter visitors aren’t exactly the golf set, a network of well-maintained hiking and biking trails is certainly important for summer resort business.”
And since traffic in the high country is only going to increase in the coming years, according to U.S. Forest Service data, it’s even more critical that the condition of the backcountry be carefully monitored and controlled.
“I certainly think that by doing more trail improvement and restoring habitats that we are helping to maintain and enhance the visitor’s experience. And that’s important,” said Hamilton. “We are a resort community; we depend on our visitors. We all have to do our bit to keep our environment sustainable. We can’t simply shut the back door.”
Contact Jeanne McGovern: 925-3414
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