Throughout 2020 the American Trail Running Association has been sharing stories of climate action and conservation. This announcement comes from the San Juan Mountain Association – dedicated to the responsible use and preservation of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
As Americans head outside in droves to recreate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, public lands have never been more popular–or more vulnerable to the impact of human visitors. But the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) has a plan for those human visitors, from age 6 to 106: turning them into the best conservationists that Southwest Colorado has ever seen. With its dynamic volunteer programs, youth education, stewardship crew, and a wilderness fund that directly impacts those efforts, the sweeping efforts of the SJMA bring the concept of shared stewardship to life.
Since 2018, the US Forest Service has focused on the USDA’s Shared Stewardship Strategy, advocating for collaborative public lands management. The idea is for the US Forest Service to collaborate with a variety of stakeholders at the state and local level, making it easier to quickly tackle challenges such as wildfires, increased public demand, and degraded watersheds.
The goal, according to the USDA, is “the right work in the right place and at the right scale.” Mark Lambert, Public Services Staff Officer with the San Juan National Forest, describes what it’s like to partner with the San Juan Mountains Association: “SJMA has been supporting and amplifying the work of the San Juan National Forest since our initial agreement with them in 1988. We’ve experienced the benefits of shared stewardship first hand through SJMA’s strong community connections and their dedicated on-the-ground volunteer, education, and field work.”
This summer, the San Juan Mountains Association brought the concept of shared stewardship to life on a grand scale, creating a model for community engagement. One of their most notable accomplishments has been funding and recruiting the San Juan Wilderness Stewardship Crew. Thanks to SJMA’s Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund, a crew of four wilderness stewards were on the ground for a twelve-week stint working to restore fragile environments.
Led by a Forest Service crew lead, the professionally trained crew cleared downed trees from trails, returned illegal campsites to their natural state, built designated campsites, and educated visitors about how to minimize their impact. In the long term, the work of the Wilderness Stewardship Crew will benefit the millions of downstream residents who depend on drinking water that flows out of the Weminuche.
Trained wilderness stewards are not the only citizens getting to experience conservation firsthand. The San Juan Mountains Association has also fielded a group of volunteers to help with the flood of visitors to the iconic Ice Lakes Trail. In a typical year, this destination experiences approximately 300 daily visitors during peak season. During the summer of 2020, with more Americans turning to outdoor recreation than ever, visitors to Ice Lakes more than doubled.
Under the direction of SJMA’s Conservation Director David Taft and Director of Visitor Services Priscilla Sherman, new and experienced volunteers formed a weekend ‘educational basecamp’ to talk to the visitors. “We make sure that hikers and backpackers understand Leave No Trace ethics and have a wag bag for packing out human waste,” says Taft. “We also help them understand the impact of staying on the trail and avoiding illegal campfires—it’s a fragile high alpine environment, and this makes a big difference.”
SJMA is also focusing on the future of conservation, engaging the youngest Coloradans through their education efforts. “In the long term, our success depends on developing the next generation of conservationists,” says Brent Schoradt, Executive Director of SJMA. “We get kids outside to explore, track animals, build shelters, and even just get muddy and enjoy the outdoors. That awe and inspiration is really the foundation of conservation.” The recent merger between SJMA and Durango Nature Studies has created a wealth of educational opportunities for young Coloradans. For example, the fall season’s Forest Fridays are a chance for students in grades 7-12 to enjoy the outdoors through science-based learning on a weekly basis.
For the San Juan Mountains Association, even a tourist or weekend backpacker can be part of this collaborative vision of conservation. “A lot of people coming here to enjoy our public lands aren’t equipped with the knowledge of how to “Leave No Trace” and minimize impacts on the landscape. Our job is to welcome them to the mountains and empower them to do their part to protect these amazing resources for all to enjoy,” says Schoradt. “We also tell folks about the Weminuche Wilderness Stewardship Fund. Anyone can be a steward of our public lands – all you need is a passion for the outdoors and for making sure this place is here to enjoy tomorrow, too. The community’s involvement makes it possible. We are proving that every day here in Southwest Colorado.”
About the San Juan Mountains Association
Founded in 1988, the San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) promotes the exploration and protection of public lands in Southwest Colorado through stewardship and conservation education for people of all ages. SJMA has a cooperating agreement with the San Juan National Forest and the Rio Grande National Forest to develop educational programs, publications, and volunteer projects, as well as to provide interpretive services for the public. In 2020, SJMA united with Durango Nature Studies to create a model outdoor education program to inspire and empower the next generation of conservationists in Southwest Colorado. Learn more at sjma.org.