by Sally Wier

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the backdrop of Crestone, are vast, wild and full of stunning scenery. These peaks are part of why many of us live here: their beauty, their wildness, the opportunities they provide to engage with nature, their peace.

With a wilderness as ample and vast as the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness there are many opportunities for members of the public to actively engage in partnership with the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF), who manages and cares for the wilderness on the western side of the range. As budgets and staffing levels on federal agencies continue to diminish, the need for collaborative care of public lands grows. Volunteerism and outdoor stewardship is of ever-increasing importance on public lands, and citizens who take time out of their lives to help care for these special places are valued and appreciated. As the volunteer manager for over 2 million acres of public lands in and around the San Luis Valley I am continually touched by the big hearts and generosity of volunteers that step forward to take care of their “back yards” and our shared public spaces.

One such group of caring individuals is comprised of your neighbors: The Crestone Wilderness Stewards. The group, made up of a number of local Crestone residents, has formally been a recognized trail adopter volunteer group on the Saguache Ranger District of the RGNF for about five years. By working directly and collaboratively with the RGNF, this group has adopted six trails outside of Crestone which all access the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. The trails are Rito Alto, San Isabel, North Crestone, South Crestone, Willow Creek and Cottonwood Creek. These dedicated locals perform a variety of stewardship tasks that range from simply hiking the trails and reporting back on conditions and the number of downed trees, to clearing the trail corridor with small hand saws that fit in your pack, to using full-sized crosscut saws to clear very large trees that block trails. Crosscut saws are only used to clear away sections of fallen trees that block a trail’s corridor. Standing and living trees remain untouched.

Monitoring trails and actively maintaining them is an important stewardship task for a variety of reasons. For instance, when large trees fall across trails and block them, as is occurring more and more frequently these days due to the spruce beetle epidemic, not only is access blocked for people to experience the wilderness, but when people do attempt to access the areas, they tend to skirt around downed trees and create new, unsustainable paths. These new trails cause resource damage. By keeping the main, well-built trail clear for passage, we can all concentrate our use on one sustainable path and protect the wilderness which surrounds the trail. Simply keeping the corridor clear of small encroaching branches, saplings and bushes has the same positive impact. Going for a hike and sharing what you see on the trail is another important task. People who hike the trails and report back to the RGNF about trail conditions with information such as the issue observed, a GPS location for the issue and a photograph, are incredibly useful pieces of information for the agency and our management of the wilderness. Letting a Forest Service employee, or a volunteer from the Crestone Wilderness Stewards know about an issue is a great way to get the word to the appropriate people about management issues that need to be addressed. Monitoring can include reporting drainage issues on a trail, downed trees, illegal campsites or fire rings, vandalism and more.