Tight federal budgets are forcing the U.S. Forest Service to rely on volunteer organizations to provide meat and potatoes rather than dessert when it comes to projects on public lands.
White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said his office works with numerous organizations in the Roaring Fork Valley that help with everything from trail maintenance to backcountry patrols to healing old scars left from road cuts.
“We used to engage partners to do extra stuff,” Fitzwilliams said. “Now our partners are doing the essential stuff. I don’t know where we would be without these folks.”
The White River office typically provides $10,000 in annual grants to a few select partners. The agency easily gets three or four times the return from the work they do, he said.
The Forest Conservancy is one of the nonprofits eager to serve the meat and potatoes for the agency. The Carbondale-based organization was established in 2001 and quickly became a key partner that provides regular patrols on the trails of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District. It started with five volunteers who hiked trails or interacted with visitors to the popular Maroon Bells. This summer it has 120 volunteers, according to Executive Director Marcia Johnson. The Forest Conservancy volunteers provided $126,000 worth of in-kind hours during the summer of 2012, she said.
She said it’s a testament to the values of people living in the communities of the Roaring Fork Valley. The nonprofit’s mission is to preserve the health of the national forest for future generations and enhance the experience of visitors.
One primary duty is to hike the trails of the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District and Glenwood Canyon. Volunteers are asked to sign up to cover open trails on open days. Each volunteer is asked to provide six service days per summer. Many provide more. (Donna Grauer, a member of the conservancy’s board of directors and a longtime volunteer, logged 26 ranger patrols in 2012.)
The volunteers wear a uniform similar to those worn by Forest Service rangers, but it clearly shows that they are volunteers. They cannot write tickets for violations of backcountry rules. Their focus is public education, Johnson said.
In addition to rangers, the conservancy provides ambassadors who help Forest Service personnel interact with tens of thousands of visitors to Maroon Lake. The nonprofit also started a new program this year to get volunteers certified as master naturalists. They will be more highly skilled educators who can lead talks at campgrounds and guided hikes. That’s vital, Johnson said, because conservation education has “fallen off the plate” of the Forest Service.
Between 15 and 20 volunteers likely will achieve their accreditation this year.
“We’ve come a long way,” Johnson said.
She envisions the organization’s role becoming even more important as more visitors hit the forests and fewer federal dollars make it to the field. About 20 years ago, the Forest Service talked about partnerships being the wave of the future, according to Johnson.
“Well, the future is now,” she said. “The reality is it’s the only way. Without it, the forest goes unmanaged.”
Information about the Forest Conservancy and how to volunteer is available at www.forestconservancy.com.