From the soaring amphitheater of Ouray, to the turquoise lakes of Silverton, to the red rock canyons of Mesa Verde, it was absolutely unmistakable that last year was unlike any before it.
The overwhelmed parking lots, trash-strewn trails and overcapacity camping areas were impossible to miss. Everyone acknowledged something needed to be done to manage the ballooning growth in visitation on Southwest Colorado’s public lands.
If you ask land managers what the best solution is to improving the situation, invariably they will respond, “More boots on the ground.” We need more people to clean up the mess, educate visitors about how to reduce their impact, and ensure increased visitation doesn’t harm the landscape and the experience of other visitors.
Thanks to our members’ support, an innovative grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, collaboration with Mountain Studies Institute, and our great agency partners, as well as a bit of creative thinking, we will be doing exactly that this summer at San Juan Mountains Association.
Starting in May, we will dispatch a crew of forest ambassadors into the field each day to cover the busiest trails in our region. These ambassadors will cover a huge swath of public land, ranging from the lofty heights of Lizard Head Pass, to the forested trails of Boggy Draw and Vallecito, to the wildly popular high-country peaks around Silverton.
The ambassadors will greet hikers at trailheads, alert visitors to fire restrictions, educate them about how to responsibly visit sensitive alpine environments, keep trails in top shape as they go on patrol and monitor conditions so we can better manage these exceptional places.
Furthermore, the ambassadors will team up with volunteers who will amplify the positive impact of this program. This program will provide a perfect opportunity for new volunteers to gain some experience with a land management professional in the field, or for a veteran volunteer to enjoy some quality time sharing their knowledge of a place they love. These volunteers will accompany ambassadors to patrol trails, track visitor numbers at trailheads and help keep our favorite recreation spots beautiful.
The Forest Ambassador program will dramatically increase the presence of staff members on the land in the San Juan National Forest, and it establishes a model for private-public partnership that agencies, nonprofits, volunteers and local businesses can all get behind. We encourage you to get out with an ambassador this summer, see what they’re up to and give them a hand in their daily mission to keep the San Juans beautiful.
We all acknowledge the exceptional value of spending time in the outdoors, and want to encourage everyone to enjoy the health and emotional benefits of visiting public land. With this program, we will ensure that we can all enjoy the benefits of time spent outdoors without harming the place, wildlife or future visitors’ experience.
David Taft is the conservation director at San Juan Mountains Association.