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Forest ambassador program shows positive impact on San Juan Mountains

As warm weather and a public eager to get outside returned to the San Juan Mountains this summer, forest ambassadors hit the trails representing San Juan Mountains Association and the San Juan National Forest in a new stewardship outreach program.

In response to the increased number of visitors to trails, campsites and popular recreation areas, SJMA launched a crew of skilled and passionate forest ambassadors to make public contacts, conduct routine trail maintenance, identify land management issues, implement volunteer stewardship projects and conduct environmental monitoring.

With support from the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative and Great Outdoors Colorado, SJMA’s forest ambassadors have increased the number of “boots on the ground” during the busiest months of the year to help protect some of Southwest Colorado’s most treasured public lands.

Forest ambassadors spend each week maintaining trails, educating the public about “Leave No Trace” principles and connecting with people in America’s public lands, the only wildlands most of us will ever own.

In the last two months, ambassadors have connected with more than 3,000 public land users, rehabilitated more than 100 campfire rings, helped with several outreach events and created a friendly, knowledgeable presence for visitors that did not exist before.

These photos show a dispersed campsite off the Pine River Trail in the Weminuche Wilderness before, left, and after cleaning up an excess fire ring. Courtesy of Cassidy Storey

The new ambassadors have some interesting stories to tell. As a team, the crew aided search and rescue operations, helped injured and lost hikers, identified an undetonated avalanche bomb, removed dozens of pounds of trash, photographed stunning scenes in the high country and provided hands-on experience that can help inform future outreach efforts.

In early June, while heading back to the trailhead after a productive day on Ophir Pass, one of SMJA’s forest ambassadors encountered a search and rescue team beginning an evacuation operation. Search and rescue informed him they had been called by a group of runners with an injured member. Though it was near the end of the day, he offered to help, and they gladly accepted.

The runner had tumbled down a steep slope while traveling in the snow and landed off-trail with a dislocated shoulder. Emergency medical technicians were able to put the man’s shoulder back in place so he could walk back to the road, but the forest ambassador was there to help. This was only the first of several instances in which ambassadors were in the right place at the right time and able to lend their skills and experience to help someone in the San Juans.

Ambassadors have also focused extensively on educating new and returning visitors about Leave No Trace principles, a set of ethics promoting conservation in the outdoors. In the SJNF, that means preparing for changing weather, packing out all trash and waste, leaving wildflowers for others to enjoy, keeping sensitive high-alpine ecosystems healthy by staying on trails, respecting wildlife by not feeding them and keeping dogs under control, and minimizing campfire impacts, which includes following current fire restrictions. As a team, the forest ambassadors have shared these ways to Leave No Trace with a variety of recreationists from fly-fishers to backpackers.

The SJMA forest ambassadors will be hard at work throughout the summer promoting conservation of the San Juan Mountains. They look forward to seeing you out on the trails and are always delighted to tell you more about their work and how you too can act as a responsible steward of your public lands.

Cassidy Storey is the forest ambassador field manager for the San Juan Mountains Association. Storey grew up in Colorado and is a recent graduate of Colorado State University.

Cassidy Storey