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Photo by Benjamin Simpson.
Wilderness stewards leave their mark (but no trace) posted on 08/01/2019

On July 20, as the country celebrated the 50-year anniversary of the first human landing on the moon, wilderness steward Mike Mathews spent the day beyond the wilderness boundary of the Paradise Park trail from Timberline Lodge. Mathews’ mission was to monitor trail usage and instruct visitors of policies that embody the “leave no trace” ethos of the 1964 Wilderness Act, enacted five years before man’s first steps on the lunar surface.

“Wilderness value is determined by people enjoying and using it,” said Mathews.

Mathews greeted visitors from foreign states and countries as he continued his 18th year of service as an interpretative agent in the wilderness areas of Mount Hood. The volunteer-based wilderness steward program was established in 1999 as a key component of the Wilderness Protection Plan, first implemented to address an increase in recreational usage of lands protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act and to preserve wilderness values in the Mount Hood, Salmon-Huckleberry, Hatfield and Badger wildernesses.

The stewardship program’s roots stem from environmental impact surveys conducted by the U.S Forest Service that suggested recreational access in these areas needed to be limited to a fee-based permit system or monitored and instructed by a volunteer-based steward program to avoid further degradation of existing wilderness areas. The program keeps access to the wilderness areas open to the public without the need for permit-based access.

“We’re all visitors,” Mathews said about his mission to inform hikers of low-impact recreational practices in wilderness zones.

Stewards patrol the trail systems and campsites and educate guests of environmentally beneficial practices to implement while in wilderness areas. Topics include garbage, human and animal waste disposal, fire prevention and additional “rampant wear” caused by traffic outside of designated camp and trail sites.

The stewards monitor trail usage to ensure that visitors complete day-use permits for the wilderness areas. Additionally, Mathews noted that 90 percent of the fees from the Northwest Forest Pass returns to the district in which the pass was issued.

These fees are assigned to provide resources, including trail and campsite maintenance and public restrooms, to trail systems according to usage patterns monitored by the permits.

“We’ve got to keep the trails happy,” Mathews stated. “It’s citizenship.”

The stewards greet 6,000 people annually and hike a combined 2,000 miles of trail as a group each year.

Stewards also check for campfires left smoldering overnight to prevent forest fires, provide first aid for hikers suffering from heatstroke, hypothermia and other injuries, and act as liaisons with the forest service and other authorities in case of illegal acts in the public wilderness. The main goal of the program is to educate the public of potential environmental impact and restore damaged wilderness areas.

“We’re here to tell people how special these places are and how careful we have to be,” said wilderness steward Janet Tschanz, who has been involved with the program since its inception.

Tschanz noted that over her twenty years with the program she believes the stewards have made an impact preventing camping close to rivers and lakes in the wilderness.

“When hikers camp too close they damage the water,” Tschanz said, citing Burnt and Mirror Lake as sites impacted by recreational use.

Both stewards noted that continued public involvement and enthusiasm for the wilderness stewardship program is integral for future sustainable public recreation in the Mount Hood wilderness areas.

“Without (the steward program), life on the mountain would be much different,” Tschanz said. “We’d probably have to buy permits to access the wilderness.”

The 20 years of volunteer effort has allowed the forest service to keep recreational access to wilderness areas around the mountain open to the public.

“We could always use more people,” Mathews said. “The more people volunteering the better.”

Training is required to participate as a wilderness steward. All volunteers must undergo job hazard analysis safety training, radio use training and instruction on managing public encounters. First-aid training is also offered to participants.

More information about the program, including an application for participation is a available online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mthood/workingtogether/volunteering. The public is invited to email questions and applications to: norynerobinson@gmail.com. The Mount hood wilderness stewards can be followed on Instagram at @mthoodwildernessstewards.

By Benjamin Simpson/MT

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