Watching out for the wilderness | SteamboatToday.com

Watching out for the wilderness

Group promotes education in the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops wilderness areas

Mike McCollum

— Owners of unruly dogs, litterbugs and irresponsible campers take note: a Friends of Wilderness volunteer may give you a polite reproach on your next wilderness indiscretion.

The group of 25 volunteers, many of whom have extensive backcountry training, patrol the Mount Zirkel, Sarvis Creek and Flat Tops wilderness areas with a wealth of knowledge and a disdain for trash.

“It’s amazing what you haul out of here, especially after hunting season,” said wilderness volunteer Elaine Dermody, who once found a toilet seat at an abandoned campsite.

“This is our 13th summer, and in those 13 years, we have seen a significant difference from when we started,” she said. “We used to haul out large bags of trash. There were people who camped on the lake where it was prohibited. It was a total mess.”

The Friends of Wilderness was established in 2000 when Dermody approached the U.S. Forest Service about her desire to start a volunteer group with the network of friends who had been doing work in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness for a few years. Dermody and her husband, Win Dermody, attended a forest service regional workshop later that year to learn what other volunteer groups were doing.

“All that time, all we had was a name and myself as volunteer coordinator,” she said. “On the way home, we wrote a draft of our mission statement, along with duties and expectations. Since then, a number of very dedicated and hard working volunteers have joined us and enabled us to make the progress we’ve made.”

Recommended Stories For You

Dermody, her husband, Jan Hatcher and Pat Wessel already had spent six years in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness volunteering their time to clean up campsites.

“It was just a small number of us, and we weren’t organized,” she said. “At that time, there were three paid wilderness rangers that were full-time out here with the Forest Service with a crew of five people doing trail work – all government-paid.”

As funding to the Forest Service declined throughout the years and the number of full-time rangers was cut from three to one, Dermody said she and the small band of volunteers decided it was time to expand.

“We couldn’t cover all the areas we wanted to cover,” she said. “Basically, we were focusing on the Seedhouse Corridor and maybe up to Buffalo Pass. We weren’t doing anything in the Flat Tops or on the other side of Zirkel near Walden.”

Hatcher added she realized the Forest Service no longer was capable of maintaining Routt County’s wilderness areas without some help.

“I feel strongly that the wilderness is not in the government’s hands,” she said. “It should be in our hands. It’s not in their hands to pick up trash. It should be up to everybody that lives in Routt County, and so I had an interest in protecting this beautiful resource we have here.”

Dermody, Hatcher and Wessel met at the Mad Creek Trailhead on Friday afternoon in full Forest Service-issued uniforms with pockets full of wilderness tips cards. One was aimed at children on how to leave no trace. One was for proper pet stewardship, and the others provided information on the three area wildernesses.

“We have shifted our focus from trail maintenance, like we did in the early years, to education,” Hatcher said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, people want to do the right thing, but sometimes they just need to be taught or reminded on how to properly enjoy the woods.”

Steve McCone, wilderness manager for the U.S. Forest Service, said without the Friends of Wilderness, the Forest Service wouldn’t be able to get to other much-needed work projects.

“If we didn’t have the Friends, then some of the other trails, like the non-motorized, non-wilderness trails, wouldn’t get done at all,” he said. “If we’ve got help in the wilderness, then we can focus on other priorities.”

To raise money for the organization, which became a nonprofit in 2006, the group offers llama-led education treks into the wilderness.

“When we take people out, we teach them how to camp in the wilderness properly,” she said. “Our big focus is education and for these people to go out with us for three or four nights, depending on what the trip is, they make a donation to our organization. And that is what we use to buy our radios, and it also helps us with our own llama trailers.”

As Hatcher, Wessel and Dermody descended back to the Mad Creek Trailhead on Friday, a couple from Illinois finished their day in the woods. Hatcher asked politely if they had signed the guest book and what the trail conditions were like.

“Our presence is known in the woods,” she said. “The locals know, and we are working on the visitors, that if they are not being responsible, they might get a few pointers from the Friends of Wilderness.”

For more information about the Friends of Wilderness, call the U.S. Forest Service in Steamboat Springs at 879-1870.

– To reach Mike McCollum, call 871-4208

or e-mail mmccollum@steamboatpilot.com