On October 3, 2020, a massive traffic jam occurred. While there’s nothing unusual about a traffic jam, this particular jam was extraordinary because it occurred on a single-lane forest road on a Saturday afternoon in West Virginia. Forest Road 75, typically an empty, potholed gravel path, runs adjacent to the Dolly Sods Wilderness and Bear Rocks Preserve in one of the more remote and wild areas of the Mountain State. Law enforcement was called in to close access to new traffic while they worked for several hours to untangle the gridlock at the top of the mountain. Hundreds of visitors who planned to escape the pandemic lockdown and enjoy a scenic excursion instead found themselves stuck in traffic, likely worse than they experience at home.
This was the crux of a trend that has been steadily building over many years, even before the pandemic, and which continues today. Dolly Sods, designated by Congress as a federal wilderness area in 1974, has long been considered one of the crown jewels of eastern wilderness areas. The purpose of designated wilderness, as described in the Wilderness Act of 1964, is to provide a refuge for people to experience untamed wildness, away from the trappings of modern civilization. The values of wilderness include absence of permanent evidence of human occupation, where natural processes are allowed to play out free of human control, an opportunity for solitude and primitive recreation, and protection of significant educational, scientific, or historical resources.
As word of “the Sods” spread, accelerated in recent years by social media and enabled by improved road access from eastern metropolises, visitation levels have grown exponentially. Even well-intentioned and savvy visitors make an impact, and not all of the new visitors have an understanding of how to recreate in a sustainable manner while preserving wilderness values.
The result has been increasingly visible degradation of the wilderness character of Dolly Sods. This ranges from physical depredations such as felled or defaced trees and “camp furniture” made of excavated rock slabs to fields of “toilet paper flowers” and, sometimes, actual ground turds. Further, increased visitation results in subtle changes, such as a decreased opportunity for solitude and the intrusion of viewsheds and natural soundscapes by drones and other low-flying aircraft.
The essential characteristic of wilderness lies in its wildness, and there is no question that this is challenged by the influx of visitors.
But not all is lost—Dolly Sods is still a wonderful scenic area, and though solitude may have decreased in the busiest areas, the opportunity to find it is not completely compromised. Located atop the mighty Allegheny Front on the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River, the Sods encompasses the Red Creek watershed, characterized by scenic vistas, hardwood and coniferous forests, heathlands of blueberry, and other hardy vegetation communities. Flagged spruce trees testify to the incessant winds and bitter weather conditions. Red Creek, stained deep red from natural tannins, and its tributaries begin in fascinating sphagnum bogs and beaver dams, creating waterfalls, cascades, and dramatic views of those natural features from ledges and cliffs of the canyon walls above.
Apart from its spectacular natural history, Dolly Sods also has a unique sociocultural history that makes it even more special as a public resource. Along with the majority of the West Virginia highlands, the primeval spruce and hemlock forests were logged to the ground in the early 20th century. Following the clear-cutting, fires inevitably started in the remaining slash, which burned all the way through several feet of organic soil down to bare rock, leaving a barren wasteland, from which nature has created the beautiful, but still evolving, plains we see today.
The area was then used and abused as an artillery practice range during World War II, and unexploded ordnances are still present and occasionally found today. While this may sound incompatible with wilderness values, Dolly Sods provides a living laboratory for experiencing and studying landscape-scale recovery through natural processes with minimal interference by humans.
The essential characteristic of wilderness lies in its wildness, and there is no question that this is challenged by the influx of visitors. Wilderness was created to provide a refuge from the pervasive influence of civilization, and while people intended to visit and experience wilderness, the Wilderness Act of 1964 explicitly states that wilderness is to be an area “untrammeled [not controlled or restrained] by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The increasingly visible evidence of human presence, coupled with overt impacts on natural features, interference with natural processes, and disturbance of the homes of creatures, threatens the essential wilderness character of Dolly Sods.
Though longtime friends of Dolly Sods have been saying for years that “somebody ought to do something about this,” it came to a head in late 2020 after the overwhelming barrage of visitors fled to the wildlands during the pandemic. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (WVHC) has a special connection with Dolly Sods, as it played a role in its original wilderness designation and its later expansion. Members of WVHC’s Public Lands Committee realized they had a responsibility to step up and see what they could do to preserve it.
Members of WVHC reached out to officials at the Monongahela National Forest (MNF) to ascertain how a group of volunteers might supplement and enhance the Forest Service’s own efforts to manage and protect the wilderness. They got an enthusiastic response from MNF leadership, which has struggled with a shortfall of personnel and other resources needed to properly manage recreation areas. Volunteers could take on labor-intensive field stewardship and free up resources for more specialized management jobs. WVHC and MNF worked out the specific elements of a volunteer stewardship program and entered into a partnership. In June 2021, the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards was born.
The centerpiece of the plan is the Wilderness Trailhead Stewards program. Volunteers post up at popular trailheads to meet visitors coming in for a hike, and serve as a resource for information on what to expect and how to experience the wilderness in a way that’s compatible with its health and preservation. During the conversation, volunteers work in key messages based on Leave No Trace (LNT) principles that are customized for the particular challenges of Dolly Sods. This includes helping hikers be prepared for rapidly changing weather and trail conditions, navigation tactics, and considerations for low-impact camping. A surprising number of people arrive at the trailhead without a map of any kind, or plan on relying only on their smartphones. Volunteers provide trail maps (printed by WVHC) in both regular and waterproof paper, and help day hikers and backpackers plan routes based on their available time, goals, experience, and abilities.
The stewards program’s approach draws on an LNT technique called Authority of the Resource that leverages the sincere desire most visitors possess to enjoy nature without damaging it and leave it intact for the next person. Many people are simply unaware of how recreation in their city park, or even other parts of the forest, may not be compatible or appropriate in a wilderness area. Rather than appealing to rules and regulations (which volunteers can’t enforce), volunteers cite the resource itself as the reason for engaging in behavior consistent with its protection. Once aware of the underlying reasons for rules and for ethical backcountry practices, most people are willing, even eager, to recalibrate their behavior and experience the wilderness, mindful of their own impacts.
This approach works. During the program’s first year, volunteers were overwhelmed by the positive response from visitors. The Trailhead Stewards initially expected to squeeze their programmatic messaging into a short conversation, but instead found many people asking for more information, which gave them additional opportunities to work in key messages about wilderness. They frequently get effusive thanks for providing resources to help folks have a more enjoyable visit.
Although effective, the Trailhead Stewards initiative is no panacea for the slew of issues threatening the wilderness character of Dolly Sods. As more people discover the wonders of this iconic area, which they are welcome to do, visitation is expected to remain high. This collective effort to inform visitors is a step toward minimizing our cumulative impact, which will help preserve Dolly Sods to be experienced as a true wilderness by the next generation. If you would like to get involved in the Trailhead Stewards or our other programs, click here.
David Johnston is an outdoor enthusiast and photographer based in the WV highlands, and coordinator of the Dolly Sods Wilderness Stewards, who enjoys lurking around trailheads.