By Noah Goold
During a global pandemic, life as a Wilderness Trails Advocate was about as ideal as it gets. The daily schedule would often be booked with afternoon storms, downed trees, and many many hills. My days would start with warm oatmeal in my sleeping bag watching the morning sun. Shortly after it would be about time to start hiking in order to keep up with the pace I set while back home while confident, and blanket covered. The first 30 minutes are always the hardest. One step at a time, the miles began to blend and pass into each. Then an unmarked trail prevents any monotonous feelings from rising.
A large portion of my job this summer was to provide GPS tracks and impact ratings of any trails and campsites that are not marked on Forest Service maps. Through a partnership with the Gunnison National Forest, I focused most of my efforts in the Fossil Ridge and Powderhorn Wilderness Areas. During my time in the field, I most often found social trails around alpine lakes and places where the previous trail had been obstructed or overgrown with vegetation. Generally, when there was a feature such as a peak or body of water displayed on the map, people would create a “social” trail or unauthorized route. Over time, these routes often become a branching network of trails and create many erosion issues.
The main goal of this data collection is to identify the social trails and then, through closure and restoration, limit foot traffic to designated trails that will isolate impacts and hopefully restore unneeded degradation. The first step is to walk the trail and find the end which could be 100 feet or 6 miles long. Next is to create a track on a GPS unit and assess its impact rating according to Forest Service standards. These ratings are broken up into three classes that assess the overall impact based off the level of ground disturbance. A class 1 social trail will often be hard to determine and is often a game trail that can be ignored and left to revegetate naturally. However, class 2 and 3 social trails experience heavy erosion and lack supporting vegetation, this will encourage further travel and it is important to map these so that land managers can decide if it’s worth restoring or designating as an official trail. trails and create many erosion issues.
After all the data is collected and the trail is logged, this information is organized into the CMC RIMS database. Here, we can create dashboards, formal reports and project proposals for places that require attention. Then land managers can utilize this information to understand increasing impacts of recreation as well as providing addition information to reduce visitor confusion on unmarked trails that can become hazardous. At the end of my internship I developed a final report that included and encompassed the work completed throughout the summer.
Back on the trail, a downed tree on the warrants a water break before taking out the saw. Being in a wilderness area, all motorized equipment is banned including chainsaws. This allowed me to practice a dying tradition of crosscuts and handsaws. First, you study the tree and identify the sides that are binding or under pressure. This will dictate where to cut and how to safely remove the tree from the trail. After laying out the ideal cut and plan to remove the tree it’s time to saw! Soon after 15 minutes of back and forth the excitement gives way to sweat until a thud of wood on soil would call break. Roll the tree off trail, pick up the pack and keep on going.
Oftentimes when you’re out on these multi-day hikes you end up on trails that rarely see other people. It is not uncommon to come across “official” trails that in reality are a mile-long maze of chest height shrubs and chirpy pika. Entertainment shifts to daily monsoons, mountain-scapes, and the simple pleasure of saving a snickers bar for 3 days until devouring it after bucking 6 trees covering 10 ft of a 20-mile trail. With the ever-increasing popularity and development of our wild lands it is now more important that ever to protect our public lands so that future generations have the opportunity to explore the vast forests and snowy peaks.
To learn more about how you can help collect data using the RIMS mobile app, visit www.cmc.org/RIMS