Backcountry rangers recently discovered a dirty little secret in Colorado’s most recently designated wilderness area, the 37,203-acre Hermosa Wilderness in the San Juan National Forest north of Durango.
“When we went in to mark the boundaries, we found several large abandoned camps full of trash,” said Anne Dal Vera, Columbine District lead wilderness ranger. “During subsequent patrols, we found more and more. We mapped the sites and vowed to clean them up, but we needed help.”
Help arrived last month in the form of volunteers who removed 910 pounds of trash from the Salt Creek drainage alone. Most of the junk consisted of old metal stoves, drums and wire. But there were also latrines, coolers, carpet, tarps, plastic, water jugs, glass, baby wipes, etc. The goal is to keep the problem from growing.
“Trash breeds more trash,” said Anne Maleady, a volunteer with the San Juan Mountains Association and Great Old Broads for Wilderness, who rolled up her sleeves to help. “If people see trash, they think it’s OK to leave their own.”
Because the area is remote, it had not been monitored for quite some time, and many of the trashy camps are quite old. Now that it is protected as wilderness, the Forest Service is targeting the trash.
“People come to the wilderness to experience solitude, not to be reminded of the excess and waste in civilization,” Dal Vera said. “The problem perpetuates itself when people think they don’t have to pack out their belongings because others have left theirs behind.”
The terrain is challenging, and only primitive forms of transportation are allowed in designated wilderness. So the Four Corners Backcountry Horsemen stepped in to carry out the heavy loads.
“There were many large cumbersome objects that could only be removed using pack animals,” said Bob Croll of the Backcountry Horsemen.
“It’s very steep and rugged country,” said Jon Sherer, trails committee chairman for the group. “I was surprised to see how little flat ground there is, and how deep and narrow the drainages are.”
Croll, who worked as a backcountry outfitter for decades, said he sees no excuse for the mess left behind.
“I’ve experienced unexpected snowstorms which force premature abandonment of a hunting camp,” Croll said. “But responsible outfitters then return in the spring to recover their equipment and trash. I hope today’s wilderness users are more attuned to a ‘leave no trace’ ethic, and that this type of trash is offensive to all.”
The volunteers spent a week gathering unwieldy items, including rusty metal, rolls of carpet and reams of plastic and loading the pack animals for many trips to the trailhead. They dismantled corrals, hitching posts and old latrines. They removed nails from trees and balled up mounds of rusty wire.
“The trash left in these big camps is disgraceful, but I was inspired by sharing a common goal with others who care enough to clean it up,” said Lauri Costello, a volunteer SJMA wilderness information specialist and Great Old Broads member.
Everyone relaxed around the camp stove one night with Marsha Porter-Norton, who facilitated the Hermosa Creek Workgroup, a six-year community stakeholder process that resulted in designation in 2014 of both the Hermosa Wilderness and adjacent Hermosa Special Management Area.
“The effort involved dozens of local citizens and organizations, and the compromises reached through consensus considered many diverse values,” Porter-Norton said. “Sen. Bennet and Congressman Tipton and their staffs drafted the legislation with input from the Forest Service.”
Porter-Norton backpacked into the Hermosa Wilderness with San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick to pitch in for the cleanup effort.
“To think that a community group brought about the federal legislation is inspiring in and of itself,” Porter-Norton said. “Then, to see the effort these volunteers put into stewardship really shows our community cares.”
“I was in awe of the time, labor and expertise these volunteers donated to help us,” said Chadwick. “We couldn’t have done this without them.”
The volunteers said it is fulfilling to know they were able to play a role in the overall process.
“I appreciate the effort and collaboration that went into the creation of the Hermosa Wilderness,” Malady said.
“It felt great to see the trashy sites cleaned up and looking nice again when we left,” Sherer said.
“The most satisfying part was seeing the pickup truck filled with trash and knowing this could only be accomplished in the wilderness by horse power,” Croll said.
And that’s where you can play a part in keeping the Hermosa Wilderness beautiful. There are three more camps to clean up in Salt Creek, and more trash caches to remove in North Hope, Hope Creek, South Fork Hermosa Creek, Deer Creek and ridges between those drainages.
“First, we need to clear trails so we can get horses in,” Dal Vera said. “This will require the use of crosscut saws and axes to clear out deadfall.”
She has put out a call for volunteers interested in helping next summer to clear trails, clean up trash or pack out trash. Trail clearing is tentatively scheduled for June 2018 and trash cleanup set for August 2018.
Ann Bond is the public affairs specialist for the San Juan National Forest. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.