Eagles Nest Wilderness volunteer ranger program celebrates 10 years
BY THE NUMBERS
From 2005 through 2014, the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness volunteer ranger patrol program in Summit County has contributed thousands of hours educating hikers and increased the Forest Service’s ability to maintain and protect local wilderness areas.
1,300: Dogs off-leash encountered
2,500: Dogs on-leash encountered
5,800: Hours volunteered
6,200: Miles hiked
29,200: People contacted
$119,000: Monetary value of labor to the Forest Service
For longtime Summit County resident Cyndi Koop, wilderness is pristine and precious.
It means moments of solitude and tranquility and sometimes being lucky enough to stumble upon and sit with a herd of 45 mountain goats.
“That kind of stuff is what you live for,” she said, and it’s what’s kept her coming back, year after year, to the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness volunteer ranger patrol program.
This year marks the program’s 10th anniversary, and Koop, a full-time Summit Stage bus driver, helped start the program and has been leading it for the last eight years.
She coordinates 25 to 30 volunteers each summer and fall who hike Summit wilderness trails while wearing U.S. Forest Service uniforms and count, teach and sometimes rescue people they find along the way. Another 20 to 25 volunteers do the same in Eagle County.
These days, the ranger program is increasingly challenged by a growing hiker population and by a dearth of younger people stepping in to help protect the beloved peaks, alpine lakes, forests and wildflower meadows and the creatures that call the wilderness home.
WITH A CAPITAL W
Located about 70 miles from more than three million people in the Denver metro area, the Eagles Nest Wilderness is at considerable risk of being loved to death.
High-alpine ecosystems are more fragile than others with short growing seasons that restrict rejuvenation to a few summer months, meaning damages take longer to repair. As Colorado’s mountain-loving population explodes, people don’t know or follow regulations meant to keep human impacts minimal.
“People just think this is all wilderness. They don’t have a clue what it means: that this is a real special place, that Congress set it aside, that the only facility we have is the trail,” Koop said.
Once designated in Washington, D.C., wilderness areas limit human activities to non-motorized recreation, scientific research and other non-invasive activities where visitors follow Leave No Trace principles.
Federal law also prohibits logging, mining, oil and gas drilling, mechanized vehicles and equipment (including bicycles, wheelbarrows and chainsaws), road-building and other development. Pre-existing mining claims, grazing ranges and water rights are grandfathered in.
At first threatened by logging, Denver Water diversions and the construction of Interstate 70, Eagles Nest Wilderness was officially designated in 1976 after a fight lasting nearly a decade.
Eagles Nest is more vertical than horizontal, with steep ridges, deep valleys, jagged peaks and dense forests and can be accessed by about 180 miles of trails that often dead-end at alpine lakes. Of the area’s 133,471 acres, Summit County contains about 82,500 acres. The rest lie in Eagle County.
Summit’s other wilderness area, Ptarmigan Peak, is much smaller at 12,760 acres and forms a sliver of land along the Williams Fork Mountains.
In 1994, Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness (FENW) formed to help the U.S. Forest Service maintain Summit’s wilderness areas. Friends of the Dillon Ranger District formed in 2005 to maintain the rest of the county’s national forest land.
That same year, FENW’s volunteer ranger program was created by local author and then FENW board member Maryann Gaug with help from Forest Service employees Beth Boyst and Cindy Ebbert.
The ranger program has an annual budget of $1,000 to $2,000 and has been supported by FENW grants and donations from The Summit Foundation, Abbey’s Coffee, the town of Silverthorne, Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Bonfire Brewing, Copy Copy and interested individuals.
Now the threats to wilderness are people coming not for profit but for recreation. As of Thursday, Sept. 9, volunteer rangers in 2015 have contributed 722 hours and contacted 8,574 people. Hiker numbers fluctuate year to year, but that’s up from 6,349 contacts made in 2014, and 2,507 in 2013.
In the last two years, rangers have counted 300 to 400 people on weekend days on more accessible, popular trails like the one to Lilypad Lake near Silverthorne.
“It’s like walking down Main Street in Breckenridge,” Koop said. “That’s not wilderness.”
Becoming a ranger involves a mandatory day of training at the beginning of the season, followed by a hike with an experienced volunteer ranger. Then new volunteers are given Forest Service shirts and set free.
Rangers commit to four hikes, each at least four hours long, from May 13 to September 30. Some rangers hike two or three times a week and rack up 100 or more hours.
They count people, track group sizes, note weather, collect trash and focus on education instead of law-breaking.
“We never try to tell people at all about regulations. That’s like being a cop,” she said. “We just say, ‘Look at the resource. This is gorgeous.’ We give them reasons. ‘If you camp right here by the water, the elk won’t come down.’”
They teach people about Leave No Trace principles, and they carry a backpack with personal equipment and extra gear in case people need food, water, medical supplies or dog leashes.
Sometimes rangers give out informational cards, bandage feet, provide first-aid and help people lost or separated from their groups.
They note their hikes online beforehand to avoid having two rangers on the same trail at same time, document their hours for the Forest Service and know where to look in case a ranger doesn’t return. The volunteers are covered by Forest Service worker compensation insurance.
Ken Harper, who coordinates the volunteers in Eagle County, said he enjoys encountering people who often thank him for the nonprofit’s work and talking to kids about what animals they might find in wilderness areas.
One of the tricky parts is telling people, especially families, why they shouldn’t pick wildflowers, he said. “If everybody did, we wouldn’t have any wildflowers on some of these trails.”
The rangers usually aid people in coming into compliance with rules, for example, by giving them leashes, helping them put out illegal campfires or moving their campsites away from lakes, streams and trails.
For the sustainability of the program, Koop said, she’s trying to recruit younger folks, people under 50, who already spend some of their summer days hiking.
Mike Mayrer, a volunteer ranger and FENW board member, said, “If you’re going to be doing it anyway, that’s how I feel, why not put on a shirt?”
Rangers can bring friends and fishing poles, and those on overnight backpacking trips can take off their uniform when they arrive at camp.
Koop, who moved to the county in 1976, said she’s been able to commit to the hikes while also working various full-time jobs and raising two children. As a ranger, she has a hidden agenda, she said: making people smile.
“The happier I can make people, the more I can make them appreciate this place, the more they will vote for wilderness,” she said.
For more information about the ranger patrol program and other wilderness volunteer opportunities, including a trip to Boulder Lake Sept. 11-13, visit the Friends of the Eagles Nest Wilderness website at fenw.org and click the Volunteer button.
This article has been corrected to reflect a misidentification of Maryann Gaug. She has written local hiking guides, not history books.
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