Volunteers hike to the rescue | AspenTimes.com

Volunteers hike to the rescue

Just as budget cuts are hitting the White River National Forest the hardest, a three-year-old volunteer group is riding to the rescue – or at least hiking to the rescue.Shifting budget priorities within the U.S. Forest Service on a national level have left the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts with fewer dollars for recreation programs than in past years. A decade ago the Aspen district had six rangers available to hike the trails to answer questions from the public, monitor backcountry use and enforce rules. Now the district is down to just one roving ranger.Bill Westbrook, the head ranger at the combined districts, said the Aspen district typically used to hire 15 to 20 seasonal workers for everything from trail crews, facility maintenance and staffing the Maroon Bells entrance station and visitor facilities. This year it could hire only nine.A nonprofit organization called the White River Interpretative Association is filling the void. The association was formally created three years ago to enlist volunteers to help the forest service meet and greet the public on trails and popular tourist destinations like Maroon Lake.”We basically consider ourselves the face of the Forest Service,” said Marcia Johnson, the association’s executive director.Johnson is the organization’s only paid employee, and she is part-time; the rest are volunteers. Johnson said its ranks have risen from 15 volunteers to 32 last year and 45 this year.The volunteers are trained by the Forest Service on the “Leave No Trace” principles of having minimal impact on the environment. They also learn how to mix with backcountry visitors in an educational way that enhances their experience rather than making them feel like they ran into a cop.”Our biggest role and goal is to be educators,” said Johnson. So when they see a hiker loping along with a dog off-leash, the rangers will explain how dogs can harass wildlife and possibly intimidate other hikers rather than write them a ticket. Or if they see someone camping too close to a water source, they will explain how that could disrupt wildlife access as well as foul the source.Johnson said that surveys indicate many forest visitors feel they have a better experience when they encounter a ranger on the trails or at a backcountry camping area. The association tries to put its volunteer wilderness rangers on the 27 most popular trails among the 85 in the Aspen and Sopris districts. “What we want is people out on every trail every day of the week,” said Johnson.The rangers don’t lack for educational opportunities. Rangers often count the number of people on a trail and report findings to the Forest Service. More than 400 on the Hanging Lake Trail in Glenwood Canyon is typical on a nice day; more than 300 encounters are standard at Maroon Lake.They also work as forest stewards, working on trails and searching for areas infested with weeds.The roots of the Interpretative Association stretch back to 1993 when Aspen resident Joanne Lyon, a volunteer ranger, realized the Forest Service needed additional help and began organizing it.Johnson said the association is likely to have an increasingly important role in the White River National Forest. While it is the top forest in the country in numbers of visitors, it is 25th in funding, she said. Forests that are more susceptible to wildfires have received more dollars in recent years.So the White River National Forest is facing a scenario where visits are increasing while dollars are decreasing. The Interpretative Association has the potential to grow even if Forest Service funding remains stable. Right now, the association is working only in the Aspen and Sopris districts and the Glenwood Springs area. It aims to spread west to the Rifle district and east to the Eagle and Dillon districts, according to Johnson.The organization has also been mentioned as a possible manager for the Maroon Bells entrance station and facilities, in case the federal government rescinds a program that allows the Forest Service to charge a fee there.The association is always looking for new recruits. They want to boost the number of volunteers to 60 from 45.Volunteers are asked to work eight hours per week on whatever days work best with their schedules, and there are opportunities to do work other than hike trails.More information and an online application are available at the association’s Web site, http://www.wriainfo.org. Interested people can also call 963-8071.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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