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Creating More “Stewards of the Lands” through SJMA’s Visitor Centers

As a conversation starter, often visitors or folks who have recently moved here ask “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been here?” I respond with a confident “I grew up here.” So when I came to interview for the San Juan Mountains Association’s Director of Visitor Information Services, I was surprised to find out that Durango has an incredibly helpful information center coupled with a gift shop. Now a part of SJMA’s staff, I have grown to realize that this little depot is a commonly overlooked gem of Durango, made possible by SJMA’s partnership with the San Juan National Forest. SJMA’s Visitor Center, located at the San Juan National Forest Headquarters in Durango, is not the only one in the region. Beyond working within the San Juan National Forest, SJMA collaborates with the Rio Grande, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests and the Bureau of Land Management to offer services that support SJMA’s three principal approaches to the stewardship of the land: Explore, Learn and Protect.

How can informational gift outlets provide these opportunities for stewardship? Every day, the SJMA Visitor Information Services team works hard to encourage visitors to explore and learn – two of our approaches to stewardship. Our staff interacts with visitors and locals alike through phone calls, walk-ins and emails, fielding questions like when and where can we travel, camp, hike, bike, use e-bikes and motorized vehicles, and even poop in our forested lands. We prioritize the message of responsible recreation and Leave-No-Trace in all of our information, and supplement those messages with helpful maps, guides, and books. Each member of our VIS staff team specializes our message to fit the unique qualities and attractions of the area.

SJMA staff is spread near and far. This year, we are excited to host VIS staff at a couple of new locations: the SJMA Nature Center (15 miles south of Durango), the BLM office in Silverton, and at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center. We also continue to support VIS offices across the San Juans in La Jara, Monte Vista, Saguache, Del Norte and Creede, Norwood and Montrose! We love connecting with all of you – whether you’ve been here for a decade or a week – so come by one of our visitor centers to say hi and we’ll be happy to answer all your public lands questions. At each location, our staff supports our partners by sharing the ideas on how to recreate responsibility, supplementing these messages with related maps, books for guiding and history, products promoting Leave No Trace principles, and souvenir gifts.

We hope that both visitors and residents alike not only learn from our knowledge of the area and our educational tools, but are also inspired to help protect these lands. By taking simple actions to recreate responsibly and encouraging others to do the same, we all can have a positive impact on our public lands. From the east sands of the Great Sand Dunes, to the western ancient homes of our indigenous predecessors, from the southern narrow gauge tracks that travel north throughout our majestic mountains, our frontline is every Visitor Information Specialist across our region. In essence, SJMA Visitor Information Specialists are creating more stewards for our lands.

J Burnite is SMJA’s Director of Visitor Information Services, Durango local, and longtime recreator of the San Juan Mountains.