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Stewardship crews strive to improve your public lands experience

San Juan Mountains Association’s seasonal stewards have reached the final third of their summer stint.

While I hear anecdotal updates from them throughout the season, it’s the time of year when I begin to look more closely at their impact throughout the San Juan Mountains – from Navajo Lake in Montezuma County to the eastern reaches of the Weminuche Wilderness, and from Blue Lakes to Junction Creek.

San Juan Mountains Association has two seasonal stewardship crews – the Wilderness Stewardship Crew and the Forest Ambassadors. The Wilderness Stewardship Crew is in its third year. Supported, in part, by the community through SJMA’s Wilderness Fund, a crew of four is working with the San Juan National Forest wilderness team. They are clearing trails, collecting data for the U.S. Forest Service, which provides necessary information about future management plans, and conducting education and outreach to backcountry users.

The wilderness crew spends most of its summer in the Weminuche Wilderness, but they also spend at least one or two hitches in other wilderness areas in the San Juans. During their weeklong hitches, they clear downed trees along trails, laboriously using crosscut saws because chain saws are not allowed in wilderness areas. At the start of this summer, they worked diligently to clear more than 150 trees from Needle Creek to provide easier access to Chicago Basin. On a hitch on the Rio Grande side of the Weminuche a couple of weeks ago, they cleared more than 300 trees from Archuleta Creek and South Fork trails.

Forest Ambassador Teal Lehto talks with visitors at the Ice Lakes Trailhead. (Courtesy of San Juan Mountains Association)

While SJMA’s Wilderness Stewardship Crew works in the San Juan’s backcountry, SJMA employs a crew of front-country stewards, too. SJMA’s Forest Ambassadors’ primary objective is to educate public land users about recreating responsibly and “Leave No Trace” principles to provide a better, safer experience for all users and to protect our public lands so they remain a gem for generations to come.

Forest Ambassadors work at some of the most popular trailheads over the weekends to interact with as many people as possible. This summer, the Forest Ambassadors are focused on a dozen locations throughout the San Juan and Uncompahgre national forests.

Their rotation includes Ice Lake and Blue Lakes, two locations that have forever been changed by social media’s reach. At each of these locations, SJMA Forest Ambassadors interact with an average of 125 visitors daily, and on some days, they easily surpass more than 250 engagements.

SJMA also tracks the preparedness of the recreationists for all of the trails that we monitor. It’s no surprise that the average readiness at Ice and Blue lakes, in particular, is lower than average for all the trails we monitor. Forest Ambassadors routinely talk with visitors arriving in the afternoon as the monsoon rains roll in, ill-equipped with footwear and gear. These interactions allow Forest Ambassadors the opportunity to instruct recreationists about how to better prepare and prevent potentially dangerous situations.

The one pervasive issue that plagues all of our seasonal crews: trash. Whether it’s dog waste, human waste, wrappers or trash bags deposited into port-a-johns or vault toilets, our stewardship crews contend with trash on a constant basis. Oh the stories they can tell! If there’s one thing you can do to help your public lands, it’s to pack out all trash.

On a regular basis, our staff members are buoyed by their interactions with many public land users. Repeatedly, we see that many people simply don’t know the common principles of “Leave No Trace.” We have heard from quite a few people who have been pleasantly surprised to find their favorite trails in good shape despite increased use, and most people our crews interact with appreciate the work we are doing.

SJMA’s stewardship crews work hard because they are passionate about protecting our unsurpassed public lands, and they want to ensure that all of us can have safe, enjoyable experiences for years to come. If you cross paths with one of our crew, take a minute to thank them – or better yet, sign up as a San Juan volunteer and shadow them for a day. I guarantee that you’ll look at the lands you love to play on with a little more appreciation and knowledge.

Stephanie Weber is the executive director of the San Juan Mountains Association.