Monday, November 11, 2019

National Wilderness Workshop

“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come. To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause between our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace. Wilderness lives by this same grace. Wild mercy is in our hands.”
Terry Tempest Williams   

I went to bend Oregon for a few days to go to the National Wilderness Workshop put on jointly by two non-profits: National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance and Society for Wilderness Stewardship. There were so many lectures I wanted to attend, it was hard to chose. I ended up getting to go to the following:
Events like this feel like the inspiration and motivation I need to remember how important the work I do is as it's easy to feel defeated and discouraged when working for Wilderness. One of the best things about events like this is catching up with other Wilderness workers I only get see at this type of thing... I even got to see a co-worker I hadn't seen since 2014! The Willamette and Deschutes National Forests are getting ready to implement limited use quota system to Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington, and Three Sisters Wilderness areas next year so it was interesting to talk to their folks about that process. Plus the 5 hour drive to get to and from the conference was full of Wilderness discussion. 

Recreation Ecology Class: The Sustainable Stewardship of Wilderness Campsites and Trails 
"Influence of Trail Layout on Resource Impacts,  Modeling Areal Measures of Campsite Impacts along the AT, Perfecting Ground and Computer based protocols for New Campsites"
It was really interesting to see Jeff Marion speak. I have followed his research as he has done a lot of work that relates to Wilderness and presents some ideas that really question how we have managed Wilderness historically. His work supports and argues for controversial ideas like allowing people to camp in meadows and constructing sites for setting up tents in the backcountry.
Tips for Writing WCM Narratives and baseline assessments
"Based on past experience the speaker will share successful strategies for writing wilderness character narratives to create strong and useful WCM reports."
This presentation was important to me as I will likely be writing Wilderness Character Narrative and Baseline Assessments for my Forest next season. I won't get into what that all means now as it warrants it's own post.

Travel Patterns and Recreation Ecology Research Along the Pacific Crest Trail
"A number of user and campsite studies are being performed along the PCTA as use level dramatically increase. The panel will discuss these research efforts, initial findings, and potential management implications for future management approaches."
It was nice to ask Troy Hall some specific questions about her minimum protocols which we have used for our WSP data collection. Another presentation was about a computer model that based on camper surveys that is supposed to predict how people spread out over areas in the Wilderness and help managers come up with trailhead quotas or other management plans based on it. The last presentation was about the idea of "geofencing" (sending relevant messages to smartphone users who enter a pre-defined location or geographic area) in terms of long distant hikers that enter new management zones. That idea is particularly relevant to my Wilderness as many long distance hikers use a short cut trail that bypasses our permit box when they enter our Wilderness from the south and those permits are our main education tool to communicating our regulations. So as a hiker enters a new area (ex. changes ranger districts, moves into/out of NPS into FS/FWS/BLM land, enters a Wilderness area) a notification (perhaps with a list of regulations) would pop up on their device.

GIS Data – It’s easier than you think
"Explore ways to better use your GIS data. Learn ways to display GIS data to better tell your story."
I have so much to learn about GIS and I've been struggling through it for some of our projects so I'm always excited to hear about other projects and get tips. The answer for me is I really need to to some ArcGIS courses, I have not been able to get to where I want to be on my own but I think it's so interesting, important, AND I love maps. This presentation showed a protocol project where the rangers collected normal patrol data (campfire rings dismantled, instanced of human waste) digitally instead of hand written which is what we tend to do. That data was then juxtaposed with campsite monitoring data so you could see how human waste was focused around campsites. Not really news to anyone but it was much more powerful to see the number of fire rings dismantled and unburied human waste visualized on a map as opposed to numbers on a piece of paper. It was good to connect with folks about specific issues I was having with GIS in my districts projects as well.

Next year's conference is in California and I'm always looking for excuses to go down there since that's where I'm from.

Wilderness Stewardship Performance elements- "Trails"

“Our skills and works are but tiny reflections of the wild world that is innately and loosely orderly. There is nothing like stepping away from the road and heading into a new part of the watershed. Not for the sake of newness, but for the sense of coming home to our whole terrain. "Off the trail" is another name for the Way, and sauntering off the trail is the practice of the wild. That is also where -paradoxically- we do our best work. But we need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them. You first must be on the path, before you can turn and walk into the wild.” 
― Gary Snyder

Some of the attributes / data we were capturing. "Condition Class" was defined in more detail in the protocol. It was basically a summery of the erosion level of that section of tread.

For the "Trails" element of the Wilderness Stewardship Performance Measures, we were working on "User Developed Trails" with our first deliverable for this element being: "A documented protocol has been used to survey user developed trails in all 'priority areas' in this wilderness." So each of the four districts came up with their "priority areas" to survey based on combinations of: areas getting highest use, areas of most concern for being unsustainable/potential need for action to manage resource damage, and areas that are mostly likely to successfully track change over time.

I worked with rangers from another district to develop and write the protocol for the entire Wilderness. It was a fun challenge to try and put into words the ineffable and endless scenarios and issues that would come up in the field and trying to tackle them with a single  framework. How do you define where one trail ends and another begins? How do you create a meaningful naming convention? What defines a "user trail"?

a page from the protocol

After we wrote the protocol we had a day where all the districts met up to review the protocol and test the tablets and other devices we would be using to capture the data. The actual field data collection happened over the summer and varied from tedious to very enjoyable. For me personally it meant I got to survey user trails I had never been on which added some excitement to my patrols which are all places I have now been to many times. I also found in every single instance I would (later in my patrol) run into someone who has a question about the route I was surveying and of course it's always nice to be able to answer questions about a place instead of having to say "I haven't been there". So the project was good for doing what we need to be doing in terms of WSP, and good for gathering data so we can track change over time / inform management actions, but also for rangers to go to places we might not normally get sent to but where the public is going (even if it's infrequent) is also good to give us a more in depth knowledge of our districts.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Wilderness Stewardship Performance elements- "Opportunities for Solitude"

In the end, it may be solitude that the future will thank us most for conserving- the kind of solitude born out of stillness...where a quieting of the soul inspires creative acts.” 
― Terry Tempest Williams

One of our selected Wilderness Stewardship Performance Elements in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness is "Opportunities for Solitude." The direction given to us by the WSP guidebook that was completed in 2018 was to:

-have a solitude monitoring plan and protocol that at minimum conforms to the national protocol
-do a baseline inventory of current opportunities for solitude

What that meant for us was recording on trail visitor contacts like we already do but making sure we did so for 4 hour blocks each with a minimum of 5 weekdays and 5 weekends for each monitoring area selected. We also did campsite solitude monitoring where we would go to any occupied camping location and record how many other occupied sites where visible from it. For both on trail and campsite monitoring we were taking note of which of the 4 Wilderness Recreation Opportunity Spectrum zones we were in as there are different solitude expectations for each zone. For example one would expect to see a lot more people in the "Transition Zone" which are areas near trailheads than one would expect to see in the "Trailless Zone" which is the least used, where there are no managed system trails, and generally furtherest from trailheads. Alpine Lakes Area Wilderness Management Plan describes the "Transition Zone" as an area with "No more than 7 encounters per day with with other traveling groups....No more than 2 other camping parties visible from a campsite" compared to the "Trailless Zone" as an area " no more than one encounter per day between groups for 50 percent of the season and no more than two encounters per day during the remainder of the use season. No other camping party visible from a campsite." Our solitude data collection allows us to have definitive documentation of solitude in our Wilderness that we can compare with the management plan and will also allow us to track change over time when we collect again.

Wilderness Recreation Opportunity Spectrum Zones from the Alpine Lakes Area Management Plan

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
  • 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
  • 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