Saturday, June 8, 2019

Wilderness Stewardship Performance elements overview

“This island of Earth of ours is finite in resources, including wilderness- particularly wilderness. The dwindling worldwide reservoir of wild lands must be the concern of everyone, but especially of those of us who have been privileged to experience wildness, and thus learn its value to the individual human soul and to the spirit of mankind.” 
― David Brower

It's an interesting time to be a Wilderness worker. While funding is on ongoing issue and the decline of "Wilderness Manager" as a stand alone position within most districts of the Forest Service has made career progression stagnant for many, there is simultaneously and somewhat paradoxically progress being made in the world of Wilderness Management. For years Wilderness managers have had minimal direction for protocols and expectations in regards to how to manage their Wilderness. That has changed recently with the arrival of the "Wilderness Stewardship Performance Measures." These are elements that have been picked as ways to direct Wilderness Management. Back in 2005 the Chief of the Forest Service announced a "10 year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge" which was direction to guide Forest Service Wilderness areas to reach a certain level of stewardship by 2014 which was the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. There were 10 elements and each element had different deliverables to acquire up to 10 points each and the goal was to have all Wilderness score at least 60 points before the 50th anniversary  Using feedback from the 10 year challenge the Forest Service adapted a new scoring system which is our current "Wilderness Stewardship Performance Measures." Instead of 10 mandatory elements there are now 4 mandatory elements and additionally each Wilderness area picked at least 6 elective elements (out of 16 options) that made sense for their Wilderness. The elements and requested deliverables to acquire points for them are explained in this guidebook. They are as follows (highlighted denotes mandatory element):

 Invasive Species Air Quality Values
 Natural Role of Fire
 Water Fish and Wildlife Plants
 Recreation Sites
 Trails
 Non-Compliant Infrastructure
 Motorized Equipment / Mechanical Transport Use Authorizations
 Agency Management Actions
 Opportunities for Solitude
 Opportunities for Primitive and Unconfined Recreation
 Cultural Resources
 Livestock Grazing Outfitters and Guides Other Special Provisions (e.g., dams, airstrips, mines)
 Workforce Capacity Education Wilderness Character Baseline

Here in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness we have selected:
 Agency Management Actions
 Workforce Capacity Education Wilderness Character Baseline
 Invasive Species
 Natural Role of Fire
 Recreation Sites
 Trails
 Opportunities for Solitude
 Opportunities for Primitive and Unconfined Recreation

So now we have more specific guidance on work, data collection and organization methods the agency expects from Wilderness areas. Each element is fairly complicated in what is requested of the Wilderness areas by the Forest Service so I'll be doing separate blog entries that go over elements individually and what my experience with them are.

Wilderness Stewardship Training

“The legacy of the Wilderness Act is a legacy of care. It is the act of loving beyond ourselves, beyond our own species, beyond our own time. To honor wildlands and wild lives that we may never see, much less understand, is to acknowledge the world does not revolve around us. The Wilderness Act is an act of respect that protects the land and ourselves from our own annihilation."
-Terry Tempest Williams

Last spring I was invited to help teach at the Region 6 (Forest Service region that includes Oregon and Washington) Wilderness Stewardship Training. Teachers were Wilderness workers from around the region.

This was a 3 day event where each attendee chose one of the 5 classes. Kyle, a Wilderness Ranger from the Leavenworth ranger district and I taught the course on visitor contacts. We were teaching first year paid Forest Service Wilderness Rangers as well as Americorp interns and volunteers.

Superficially, visitor contacts can appear to be quite simple. Once you have a system, most of them are, but there's actually a lot to consider that we taught in our course. Some topics covered:

-Visitor contacts are not simply about the people you talk to directly (active contacts). They also consist of the people you don't talk to, who simply see you from say across a lake, because people's behavior changes when they know an authority figure is present (inactive contacts). Conversely your behavior must always reflect your agency and job because you may be being observed by the public even when you aren't aware of it.
-Visual presentation, body language and positioning
-Overview of Leave No Trace principles and connecting common Wilderness visitor issues with each principle
-General talking points and tailoring them to the management concerns of your Wilderness, supplemental talking points by using visual clues of visitors that can guide your conversation, local/site specific talking points where current conditions like weather or known habituated animals can guide talking points.
-Gathering information from visitors about their experience and what they have witnessed on their trip and how you can use that information
-Personal safety concerns and managing difficult people
-Special consideration when talking to stock users
-Importance of knowing local regulations and that every Wilderness has different laws that are enforceable. Knowing how a regulation was posted or available to the visitor before going into an enforcement contact.
-Most common misunderstandings by public (understanding elevation fire bans vs. wildfire season fire bans, packing out TP and compostable materials, lack of knowledge of sensitive plants, purpose of Wilderness permits, concerns with not burying human waste)

It's always a joy to connect with Wilderness staff from other ranger districts and Forests. The Wilderness program on my district is small so it's nice to have events like this where I can move out of my bubble and have conversations about different management styles and programs and get ideas for how my district can improve ours.

The staff and students of the 2018 Pacific Northwest Wilderness Stewardship Training

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Total solar eclipse

"If you love your work, you don’t need to rest. My work is nourishing, and in many cases it’s what has got me from one day to another. The people I’ve met through it keep me going."
-Emmylou Harris

Last August the Great American Eclipse came and the path of totality went right over the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. In an effort to manage the anticipated crowds that would come flocking to the Wilderness Area a request was put out for extra Wilderness Rangers to come down and help patrol. To add to this already complicated event, a fire broke out in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness about a month before the eclipse which was still burning during the eclipse. This fire ended up closing about two thirds of the Wilderness to the public so the fire personnel could operate and to keep the public safely away from the fire. Since the land managers were anticipating a lot of visitors and a lot who were less familiar with proper Wilderness human waste etiquette, they put out toilet stations. These were basically 5 gallon buckets with gelling agent in them and a little privacy tent. All these waste buckets would get packed out after the eclipse. Our main jobs besides simply being a presence were to monitor areas where camping wasn't allowed (we found some folks that were setting up in a well-marked day use only area), monitor the boundaries where the Wilderness was closed for the wildfire (which were signed and flagged off but we still caught people entering the closure area), and checking in that visitors got their Wilderness permits and knew about the campfire restrictions. Although there were enormous numbers of people anticipated for this, in the end it was not overwhelmingly crowded, more or less normal weekend numbers relative to what we're used to seeing in Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Probably because of how smokey the area was a lot less people came out.

It's always exciting to get to see another Wilderness Area but to do so while witnessing the solar eclipse from the path of totality was truly a privilege and honestly one of the most spectacular things I've seen.

Three Fingered Jack from an old wildfire burn

a view of Mt Jefferson and the Puzzle fire (2006) burn area with the smoke from the Whitewater fire visible near the base of the volcano

pointing at the sun, eclipse glasses on...during the eclipse it got so dark we could see the glows from nearby burning wildfires

looking across at Three Fingered Jack you can really see how much of this Wilderness has burned in years past (here looking at B&B fire burn from 2003)

we were lucky to have a clear day on the eclipse because this is what it looked like on the other days, very smokey.

despite how charred this Wilderness is from old wildfires, there are still lush places hidden away

horsemanship training

“In the world of mules there are no rules.” - Ogden Nash

Last spring we got to go to horsemanship training in the Methow Valley. We learned how to catch, brush and saddle horses and mules as well as how too wrap and tie up loads. We got to learn basic riding techniques and also how to load them into a vehicle.

practicing riding techniques

Once you catch a horse (catch makes it sound like you chase them, actually you are calmly following them with the bridle until you can put the bridle on) you take them and brush them down. This is important so any burs or clumps of dirt that could be abrasive under their saddle/paniers get brushed off. It also lets you see your animal closely so you can see if they have any wounds or other issues that need to be cared for or monitored. Then you put on a saddle blanket which is another way we prevent abrasion to the animal and then you put on their saddle. There are riding saddles which are designed for animals that someone will sit on and packing saddles for animals that will be carrying/ have loads attached to them.

When packing trail crews in, there are a lot of awkward things that need to be sent in...mostly strange shaped tools. It's generally easier to load up paniers onto an animal but some things just don't fit into pre-made panier bags and boxes and need to be wrapped up into what we call mantie loads. Manties are basically heavy duty canvas sheets wrapped around whatever you need to load onto your stock. They get wrapped up in a particular way with rope and basically a lot of variations on the half hitch knot.

Tommy practicing tying up a mantie load

a properly tied mantie load on

my mule Suzy with her riding saddle on

pack saddles on and ready to load up at the trailhead

quick release hitch for tying animals to fences/posts

The big takeaways from working with the pack string last season are that mules don't listen well, and it's important to have well-trained animal and packer leading...the rest of the string will be more likely stay on task if the leader and lead animal are operating smoothly.

Monday, July 24, 2017

rigging training

“This is what we can promise the future: a legacy of care. That we will be good stewards and not take too much or give back too little, that we will recognize wild nature for what it is, in all its magnificent and complex history - an unfathomable wealth that should be consciously saved, not ruthlessly spent. Privilege is what we inherit by our status as Homo sapiens living on this planet.” 
- Terry Tempest Williams

At the end of last season and again a week ago I got to help out with some rigging projects where we used cables and winches to lift heavy logs. Since we can not use motorized heavy equipment in the Wilderness (not legal and most places are too remote for them to access anyways) rigging is often the minimum tool that can get a remote job done.
This is one of the cable winches we used. The wire feeds through it and the handle cranks it through.

Here it is set up at a couple different spots. The wire feeds in through the front and the back gets anchored to a tree with a slings and shackles.

If the anchor slings were slung around the tree in a basket type hitch they were strongest (tree on left), if you girth/choker hitch them (center and right tree) they lose some strength, least strong if you set the slings up straight. The strength for each set up is noted in pounds on the sling (photo above).

This log was attached to two winches, someone was feeding out cable on the near one while the other was simultaneously taking the other cable in to maintain control. The logs on the trail are there to reduce friction so the log would move more smoothly and also to keep it from digging into and eroding the trail too much.

Once our logs were close to the bridge site, another line was set up to move thelm over the creek. The log started on the ground and enough slack was fed into the rigging system to hook it up to the slings and pulley blocks, once secured to the line, the line was given tension which lifted the log up off the ground so we could guide it to it's home.

This is the biggest log that got moved. Pretty impressive what the equipment is capable of moving. Sadly, I was not present for the end of this project and don't have any photos of the final bridge.

Last week we had another rigging project. The opposite of that last project, instead of moving a log to a site to become a bridge, we were using it to help us get a log off a bridge! A tree had fallen onto on of our trail bridges and we needed to use rigging to safely remove it. The rigging allowed us to saw the log and when the cut was through, instead of the weight releasing and coming down onto the bridge (which had the potential to damage the bridge structurally) it stayed suspended so we could release it in a controlled way.

We made two cuts and the rigging set-up made it so the log could be let down gently instead of falling and potentially damaging the bridge. You can see the main cable in the middle of the log and then we had two smaller cables set up to direct each cut piece away from the bridge (visible in second to last photo).

Sunday, October 2, 2016

rock breaking project

Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute.
Read more at:
“Such silence has an actual sound, the sound of disappearance.”
- Suzanne Finnamore

Last week I went out with Ryan from our motorized trail crew to work on a rockier portion of trail. Since we weren't working in the Wilderness we used tools I never use.
Ryan with the power wheelborrow we used to pack in the jackhammer/rock breaker and everything else we used that day. This thing was tricky to manage! I was excited initially but after about 5 minutes I looked over at Ryan and said "this isn't exactly fun is it?" He laughed and shook his head. He would run ahead on the trail and knock rocks out of the way making maneuvering the thing easier on me. Occasionally he would look back to check on me and give me the thumbs up to reassure me. Sometimes I gave the thing too much gas and it would kind of take off too fast. Or I would go over obstacles and wide eyed hope the thing didn't fall over (which is did once, and it was okay...not too hard to upright with two of us pushing).

Ryan working the rock breaker. This thing weighed at least 50 pounds, it was exhausting to run.

Here's the before and after of the work site. As you can see, the rocky hill pushes too far into the trail corridor. People don't want to walk or ride on that kind of thing so it was pushing people over and tempting some to cut the switchback entirely. Under the pile of loose rocks on the left is a not visible log crib that supports/holds in the trail above. We leveled out the rocks on top (any rocks above the log cribbing/retainer will just get knocked into the trail below), broke up the solid rocks along the hillside then poured dirt over everything.

All day we were running these things that were motorized and loud. The noise alone was exhausting. It was a rewarding project and I'm always excited to learn to use new tools but the whole thing just made me grateful for the Wilderness Act and that we have places where even as workers for a land managing agency, we have to function and get jobs done without loud equipment.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Labor Day weekend

"If I have someone who believes in me, I can move mountains.” 
– Diana Ross

I just had every crazy thing a ranger could have happen, happen all in one weekend.

I was on my way to one of our more popular lakes. On the way there is a very nice large lake on a flat trail just a couple miles from a trailhead. It's popular for families, first time backpackers or people who don't want to exert themselves too much. For those reasons there are often folks that need reminders and education on best practices for how to be a responsible backpacker. It's also one of the few places on our district (besides the developed campgrounds) where campfires are still legal right now.

I came into a camp initially to make contact and go over regulations but found that the party was not there. What I did find was that the fire they made was not completely put out and had gotten away and traveled through the duff into a nearby log, starting to char it.

escaped campfire had traveled through the duff and burnt into the log on the left

It had rained about a half inch the day before so it was good real life example of how even when you are soaked and you think the ground is soaked (there were still puddles on the ground in the area and it was sprinkling off and on this day as well) it takes a lot of rain to saturate the ground. A good example of why burn bans to limit human causes wildfires are relevant even as the weather may try to tell you otherwise.

So you can see in the photo the fire was not flaming at all but it was still smoking, hot, and had red hot embers. It also had no rock ring around it which didn't help. We're supposed to call any uncontrolled fire into our dispatch so I got all the information they would need at dispatch together while I waited for the campers to return. I didn't want to start putting it out because I wanted them to see how hot it still was. I called the fire in to dispatch. When the campers returned I showed them how it was still hot. They acknowledged knowing it had escaped and charred into the log. They told me they poured water on the log (which I believed, the log was cool and damp and no longer smoldering) but left the rest because they wanted to have another fire that night. The fire had charred into the duff and surrounding roots. I was surprised to learn one of the people in the party lived in a city that lost dozens of homes last summer due to a human caused wildfire. Additionally another person in the party confided in me that after seeing how the fire got away, they were so worried about it the night prior they left their tent and slept beside it. I wrote the party up. I don't enjoy writing tickets but this season specifically I have been able to write some for issues that are very important to the Wilderness. Luckily all the roots were very small so to put it out I basically poured water on it (it took over 10 gallons to get it cold!) stirred it around and dug the charred area down through the organic layer to mineral soil so I knew there was nothing else under that could burn.

While my whole escaped fire debacle was going on, my attention was going in and out of monitoring radio traffic regarding an injured person on a trail not too far from me. After the party moved their camp and I put the fire out I called my boss whom I heard relaying information about the injured person and hoping to get information about the Search and Rescue (SAR) operation.

There are two ways my NPS contemporaries can make me jealous: it's by working for the agency that manages the most acres of Wilderness and by their involvement in SAR. While NPS manages their own SAR operations, ones that happen on Forest Service lands are actually under the jurisdiction of the county. So a NPS Wilderness Ranger will likely do lots of SAR while a FS Wilderness Ranger is not often involved in SAR.

A Washington Trails Association (WTA) crew leader who was hiking in with his crew for a week long volunteer trail work party came across the injured subject's wife. The crew leader had problems with his radio so he hiked back down to a Forest Service cabin where he was able to use another radio to call in the initial assessment of the injured man. He returned to the lake where his crew and the injured man were located that evening with a set of fresh batteries for his radio. He never called back with an update because it turned out the radio issue was not battery related. My boss got me in touch with the country to let them know I was available and I left my radio on that night just in case. I hiked in with 6 SAR team members the next morning the county had assembled. The information we had from the call the night prior was the man's back had gone out, not triggered by anything specific but he did have preexisting back issues. It being Labor Day weekend they did not have as many people as they hoped. They were all volunteers and very nice and funny people. "A bunch of 50 year old guys with back problems going to carry out a 50 year old guy with a back problem!" one of them joked. That was a bit of a hyperbole, the age range of the group was fairly balanced. It felt good to help out with a rescue that was happening on my district. I felt useful not just in a people power way to help carry the guy but also because I had pertinent information for the SAR members. I could tell them that the trail was clear of logs, wide enough for a litter carry but still plenty of rocks and roots to negotiate, that it was about 2,000' gain over 2 miles and what part of the lake the man was likely located in since I knew where people tend to camp there.

We got to the lake and met with the man, his wife and the WTA crew member who had called in the incident. The man was laying in his tent unable to move. We disassembled the tent around him (a really obvious idea in hindsight that I'm not sure I would have thought to do on my own. It made it so we could get to him more easily and move him less, very important especially for back/neck/head/spine issues). We put him in the litter leaving him on his sleeping mat and in his sleeping bag (it was chilly out) and strapped him in. With me and two WTA members we had 9 people to help with the carry and a 10th helper from WTA to carry the man's pack out. If you've ever wondered how long it takes to carry out someone 2 miles down a trail I have the answer: 5.5 hours.

the country Search and Rescue crew carrying the parts of the litter up the trail

We rotated through positions on the litter carry each taking breaks because even with 6 of us carrying at a time the man weighed over 200 pounds and it was very hard work. Despite being a great pain and audibly suffering the entire time the man was as upbeat as one could be in that type of situation. The litter had a wheel which had to be negotiated around all the trail tripping hazards so someone would be ahead of the litter talking the crew through what obstacle the wheel was about to hit. Of course being hyper aware of the Wilderness Act I certainly thought about the wheeled litter and how it was mechanized transport but that was obviously trumped by this emergency situation and the reality was there was no way we would get this man down the trail safely with a hand had to be wheeled or a helicopter. Even with the wheel, it was difficult and heavy and very tricky to manage. I don't have a photo of it assembled but it looked more or less like this.

We got to the trailhead where we met the ambulance, medics and local fire crew. Additionally some of the district's hand crew were just coming back from checking on my runaway fire from yesterday. I wasn't really sure what I should do at that point, my initial itinerary for the work week was toast but I still had one night left I was supposed to be in the field. The WTA crew leader was going to town to get a new radio and wouldn't be able to return to his crew until the next morning. He asked if I could stand in for the night so they could have radio communication if needed. So of course that was a good solution to where I could be useful and I hiked back up 2,000' to the lake I had just hiked up to and down from that day. The crew cooked me dinner and I collapsed in the crew leader's tent where piles of AA batteries and his Wilderness First Responder handbook told a story of the stressful situation he had been thrown into as the first responder to the situation and having to take on the initial injury assessment. The crew leader came back the next morning with a functioning radio and I left the crew to their work and I went back to mine. The weekend excitement wasn't quite over however.

I was headed back down the trail when I started hearing stories from people coming up trail of some escaped stock. People were telling me there were 5 animals unsaddled and unattended headed down the trail. Also, they were still hobbled!! So I start booking it down the trail, trying to brainstorm what I could even do if I came across the animals. After some time cruising down the trail the story changes a bit and I find out the owners of these animals are somewhere on the trail between me and the stock. That's welcome news, I was worried the owners had left their animals for the day and had no idea they had escaped. I radioed some co-workers who were working down along the road where the trailhead was, that way if they saw the animals they would at least know that the owners were behind looking for them. Eventually the owners come up the trail with their stock. The animals were just a few hundred feet from where the trail meets the road when they got to them.

So there it is. This is my third year doing this and I'm pretty sure I just had the most eventful work week of my entire career.