By David Taft
During summer 2019, our community was deeply concerned about the state of the Weminuche Wilderness.
Visitation was exploding (as it still is), avalanches the previous winter left many trails blocked or obliterated, human waste continued to be a major issue in heavy-use areas and challenges seemed to be ramping up with no end in sight.
In response to this sentiment and public outcry, San Juan Mountains Association stepped up with our Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund.
Through last October’s San Juan Mountain Jam Fundraiser and countless local donors, we raised more than $40,000 toward stewardship projects in the Weminuche. We then used these community contributions as matching funds to pull in funding from the National Forest Foundation and VF Corporation, parent company of Smartwool, The North Face and Altra Running.
We are incredibly proud to report the results of the work that was accomplished thanks to your support. Despite early concerns because of COVID-19 that we would not be able to run our San Juan Wilderness Stewardship Crew, the crew of four began its season in early June and came out of the gate charging.
After a brief week of crosscut and wilderness monitoring training, the crew headed up to Chicago Basin to clear the trail and naturalize illegal campsites and campfire rings. Over the course of three days, the crew hiked 36 miles, cut 70-plus trees using 6-foot-long crosscut saws and naturalized numerous large campsites with illegal campfire rings.
This was a good warm up for the crew, which over the next 12 weeks would proceed to haul more than 250 pounds of trash from deep in the wilderness, log out the Vestal Creek Trail, naturalize almost 200 illegal campsites, saw through 90 more downed trees and spend almost 200 hours speaking with the public about wilderness regulations, Leave No Trace principles and how to visit this spectacular place with respect.
To wrap up the season, the crew headed up to Rainbow Hot Springs to clear avalanche debris and designate eight campsites to prevent hikers from camping too close to the West Fork of the San Juan River. We will maintain a reduced crew to continue with trail cleanup and hunter outreach throughout the fall.
In addition to our San Juan Stewardship Crew, with the money from National Forest Foundation we enlisted the help of a Southwest Conservation Corps crew to clear the first two avalanche debris piles blocking the Elk Creek portion of the Colorado Trail.
This was a massive undertaking, as there were about 500 trees thrown onto the trail. With additional effort from Kristina Schenck, U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger, and Colorado Trail Foundation trail adopter Connie Wian, the first two piles have been cleared and trail usability greatly improved.
Going forward, we have some big plans to keep the momentum rolling. We will continue working with Schenck to clear the additional log piles on the Colorado Trail next year. The crew will also spend a month working on trails in the Divide area of the Weminuche, most likely the Continental Divide Trail. We also look forward to ramping up our Wilderness Volunteer Program, as we now better understand how to conduct activities despite the ongoing pandemic. As always, we encourage you to reach out if you are interested in volunteering with SJMA.
We ask everyone to join us in celebrating Weminuche Month this October. In lieu of an in-person fundraiser this year, SJMA will be selling Wild for the Weminuche hats and stickers at local retailers (see our website or social media for a full list).
Furthermore, Alpine Bank has generously offered to donate $100 for every new Environment Loyalty debit account opened during the month of October. This is a great and easy way to support Colorado’s largest wilderness.
David Taft is the conservation director of San Juan Mountains Association.